150 Million Women to Wield Mobile Phones as Tools for Change

10/22/2010 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Witness WITNESS uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations.

This post was written by WITNESS executive director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a panel organized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Office of Global Women's Issues called "Mobile Technologies as an Effective Tool for Women's Empowerment and Global Development." The occasion was the launch of the mWomen Program, a joint initiative of the Cherie Blair Foundation and the GSMA Development Fund that aims to provide 150 million women with mobile phones over the next three years to promote women's empowerment and international development by "closing the gender gap on mobile technology."

Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer spoke about cell phones as "powerful equalizers of opportunity." Watch video from the event.

There is a significant gender gap when it comes to access to mobile technology and possession of mobile phones. A woman living in sub-Saharan Africa is 23 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man, and that percentage goes up to 24 percent in the Middle East and 37 percent in South Africa.

Experts estimate that in total 300 million fewer women than men in "low and middle income countries" countries own a mobile phone. With mobile phone subscriptions hitting the 5 billion mark, why is closing this gap so important?

Our October 7 panel, (more aptly compared by its moderator Maura O'Neill, Senior Counselor to the Administrator and Chief Innovation Officer at USAID to a very large dinner party with vocal guests), confirmed what we anecdotally already know: mobile phones are essential to helping women develop a small business and to gaining financial independence. They are also key to enabling access to health programs and information and even to increasing women's literacy. (There great case studies on the use of mobile phones for social impact around the world on MobileActive's website.)

But the importance of a woman with a mobile phone does not end with economic and personal health gains. Mobile phone technology contributes to improving the safety of women around the world as well as for organizing and mobilizing around issues of gender justice in conflict and post conflict zones. And in the fight to end gender-based violence, a woman with a mobile phone is a powerful voice.

For example, Brigid Inder, the Executive Director of Women's Initiatives For Gender Justice, our new partner on a campaign to end gender-based violence emphasized during her recent visit to WITNESS how vital mobile phones are among the grassroots organizations that are members of their network. Phone calls made via mobile phones are a means to share information, set advocacy goals, and progress common goals of justice for women who have suffered rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Women from remote regions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda initiate, participate, and contribute instances of violence and advocacy strategies via mobile phones.

At WITNESS, one of our founding ideas was: What if every human rights defender had a camera in her hand, what would she film? And what could she change? Visual imagery has a unique power to move people to action. The camera of choice today is a video-enabled mobile phone.

I can't wait for the mWomen initiative to be successful. Beyond organizing and mobilizing -- just imagine what 150 million more women with cameras in their hands could document and what they could change.