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Tech solutions that work for women

Linda Zuze 30 March 2022

Changing technology can sometimes be easier than changing mindsets but the benefits for women can be immense. This article was first published on News24 and is posted here with their permission. 

Photo credit: kate_sept2004 on iStock by Getty Images

In October 2020, somewhere between the first and second waves of the pandemic in Southern Africa, my mother phoned to tell me that she had been diagnosed with cancer and needed an urgent operation.

This was the kind of shocking news that we all feared in those days. By the time I’d organised a Covid-19 test and a flight on one of the few airlines operating at the time, she was already out of surgery.

Her recovery has been slow but successful. What makes this story so remarkable, and why I choose to share it on International Women’s Day, is because of the events that led up to that phone call. Her actions echo those of women across the continent who use new technologies to take charge of their lives.

The digital revolution 

My mother had been feeling unwell for many months leading up to her surgery. She was told that there was nothing to worry about. She was doing fine for someone of her age. Unconvinced, she did what any tech-savvy 70-year-old African woman would do. She consulted Dr. Google. Now, I don’t for a moment endorse replacing Google with professional medical care. But for my mother, during a pandemic, access to digital technology empowered her to search for answers, which led to her insisting on a biopsy and ultimately to a life-saving surgery.

I generally raise my eyebrows when I read about how the digital revolution is transforming the lives of women in low-income countries. And yet more and more, I’m convinced we are turning a corner in places where digital services are specifically tailored to women who need them most. This may be in part because these services are filling in gaps in care or access left by inequitable financial and health systems. Some of these tools are unfamiliar, but this doesn’t mean that they are beyond reach if women are shown how to use them. Of course, even if access is increasing, social norms can still prevent women from taking full advantage of existing digital solutions.

Men and women access technology differently. The 2021 GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report revealed that, overall, mobile phone ownership among women is not changing very much. Women are 7% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. A wide range of financial services are available via mobile phones. If mobile network infrastructure continues to expand into rural areas, mobile money is a possibility for women who have previously been out of reach.

Mobile money has many benefits. Women can set up an account linked to their mobile phone and then use it to save, borrow, and even access insurance products at their convenience. Mobile transactions can be quicker, cheaper, and safer for women than traditional banking services. Thanks to collaboration between the private and public sector, it’s no longer necessary to queue up to pay for utilities, school fees, or even taxes in my home country of Zambia. These transactions can be completed within seconds using a low-cost mobile phone (by the way, smartphones are not a requirement). The Zambian government is also testing whether mobile networks can be used for government-to-person payments and so far, the results are encouraging. In countries like Kenya, where mobile money usage is exceptionally high, it has been linked to poverty reduction in female-headed households.

Gender norms and technology 

If mobile phone ownership and mobile money can make such a difference to women’s livelihoods, then why not simply give the phones away? Some organisations are doing just that.

Phone distribution is usually combined with a training activity to help women make the best use of the services. In Zambia, a non-profit called FSD Zambia recently distributed low-cost cell phones, along with solar cell phone chargers to 44,000 low-income women. Dubbed “Cash Shake Off”, the programme is intended to make transacting easier in underserved communities. And a bonus is that women are receiving public health information about the pandemic on their phones.

We are still learning about the full impact of digital technology on women’s lives. Much more needs to be done to ensure privacy and security, especially for new users. What happens when recipients of free cell phones become targets of political campaign messages, as has been reported in India? Or when false information spread through social media proves difficult to correct?

And then there are those instances when gender norms collide with technology. What if communities disapprove of women owning cellphones? The reason put forward is that mobile phone usage can distract married women from their primary caregiving responsibilities. For unmarried women, it may even  reduce their marriage prospects. Such gender norms can be slow to change.

Sometimes the best that we can do is to understand how these norms operate so that we can design solutions that are informed, realistic and participatory. For example, if women who own cellphones are regarded with suspicion, then perhaps the focus needs to be on making cellphone ownership more widespread and acceptable.

Changing technology can sometimes be easier than changing mindsets but the benefits for women can be immense. Access to the right tools at the right time can even be lifesaving.