Tech equalizer

Activists help world's poor dial up freedom on cellphones

Usually, tech conferences are stuffed with men, but at the Mobile Tech For Social Change sessions during Net Change Week at the MaRS recently, nine of the 10 speakers were women. The topic makes a big difference.

Turns out it’s women who are leading the digital movement for poverty reduction in developing countries, and specifically drawing the connections between tech use and female empowerment.

“In some countries, tech can be a great equalizer,” Hima Batavia from the Clinton Health Access Initiative, one of the session’s speakers, told me. “If a girl has a mobile phone, there is an exponentially higher chance she’ll go to school.” Patriarchs are more likely to let girls attend classes without male escorts as long as they have their phones on them, she said.

Indeed, reports show mobile phones allow women in developing countries to run their own businesses and gain independence from their largely patriarchal villages. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), for example, sends agricultural workers in India SMS messages with commodity prices so they can determine when and where to get the best price for their produce.

And studies conducted in many countries including Kenya, Bangladesh, Uganda and Rwanda demonstrate that mobile phones give women greater access to information and virtual support. In Mexico, women have used the anonymity of cellphones to build virtual support groups for HIV patients.

Many women, tech activists point out, find the biggest benefits in auxiliary phone features like calendars, alarm clocks and calculators. Sending text messages also increases literacy and numeracy, a big plus for women traditionally discouraged from going to school.

A whole movement around “mWomen” has popped up in the last year or two, led by mobile phone association GSM. They’ve had meet-ups in T.O., San Francisco, NYC and Washington and recently published a report called Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity. There are 8 billion text messages sent daily, so the word “opportunity” is certainly apt.

“If you have a mobile device and internet connectivity, you have a voice,” said Net Change speaker Ayelet Baron. She offered as an example Cisco’s TelePresence technology connecting girls in Kenya and Canada for a meet-and-greet session.

Baron also described Cisco’s TeleMedicine program, which allows doctors to see patients in remote locations through TelePresence. “In India a really high portion of women are not screened for breast cancer,” says Baron. In rural India, she says, health care comes on a bus carrying TelePresence devices.

Net Change week featured more examples of health care delivered through mobile platforms. Liz Peloso of Jembi Health Systems is working on decreasing maternal mortality in developing countries, which is as high as one in seven in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

In Rwanda, Jembi rolled out an ehealth program based on SMS messaging. When women go to a clinic to get tested for HIV or during pregnancy, clinic workers send text messages back to a central database. Personalized recommendations can be made to the patient via her phone (few have computers).

One of the most powerful tech developments is the “crisis mapping” platform Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”). It allows people to input “cases” from their mobile phones that then get geo-tagged and placed on regional maps in times of humanitarian or natural disaster. Cases can consist of video footage, photos, written descriptions and even calls for help.

In Egypt during the uprising in early 2011, “HarassMaps” on the Ushahidi site pinpointed when and where women were sexually harassed during the uprising. The info could become evidence in court but was also used proactively to help women avoid those locations.

Amidst the tech praise, though, there was plenty of criticism. “Tech initiatives have often failed to live up to expectations. We often implement technology for technology’s sake and lose sight of the problem we’re trying to solve,” says Peloso. After all, there are more mobile phones in Africa than shoes. Net Change women have their social tech/social change work cut out for them.

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