Men and women need to join forces on a mission to connect women to the world. For decades we have heard about gender disparities in every field from economics to education, politics to media. Now we have new evidence of a huge information gender gap hindering the progress of the world's women -- yet another wake-up call that without engaging women, we are unlikely to solve big problems that affect all of us.
In a just-released report by GSMA, an organization that represents global mobile operators -- a report endorsed by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank -- women are being left behind in the global mobile revolution. The report, "Bridging the Gender Gap: mobile access and usage of low- and middle-income countries," finds that 1.7 billion women around the world do not own mobile phones, creating a gender gap of 200 million women. (The report updates earlier findings from five years ago highlighting the disparity in mobile phone ownership between men and women in low- and middle- income countries.)
Think about what technology like a mobile phone enables an individual to do -- from connect with friends and family to access data, information, education, training, and employment. Think about what it would mean if the power of "half the sky," -- 50% of the population -- could be unlocked through access to a mobile phone.
Interestingly, the barriers to women's access to mobile technology laid out in this report, mirror the barriers to women's progress in other sectors: cost of entry to the market, inaccessibility in rural areas, systemic discrimination, technical literacy, basic confidence, and security and harassment.
That last point -- security and harassment -- may surprise people. The notion that many women around the world fear that owning a mobile phone will subject them to harassment--which is so ingrained in their cultures. Ironically, once educated, women discover that sexual harassment can be addressed in many ways including through technology. In India, for example, new apps, such as "FightBack" (www.fightbackmobile.com) and "Safetipin" (http://safetipin.com) enable users to send alerts in the case of an emergency, identify risky urban areas, as well as safe places, while also gathering user-generated data on risks and safety that inform security forces, local authorities or community organizations and urban planners. India has a population of 1.3 billion yet, according to the report, 114 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone--a gender gap of 36%. India is just one example of a critical global player whose women are often at a disadvantage from discrimination owing to social norms, sexual harassment, and basic prejudice. For India and other low and middle-income countries, ending sexual harassment is not only right--it makes good business sense.
If women gain access to the global economy, net incomes and new jobs will strengthen the entire international eco system. The bottom line is that connecting women today is essential--not only through technology but through human interaction, the growth of foundations and organizations addressing these issues, public-private partnerships that engage men, and international cooperation in what is a non-zero-sum game wherein progress for some means progress for all. We also need more data collection, like this mobile phone report, to know where the gaps are, and how to close them. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access as men to the farming sector, they could increase agricultural yields by 20-30%--enough to lift between 100 and 150 million people out of hunger. But to get there, women need basic connectivity and the information to reach their full potential.
Let's remember that women are key decision-makers in families throughout the world, but they often lack capital, full access to education, skills, training, financial autonomy and basic rights. Unleashing their potential will have a ripple effect around the globe. In the end, human beings need to connect and collaborate to survive and thrive. This is the moment for men to step up to the challenge -- working with women to better the planet -- for the sake of all of us.
The authors are Yann Borgstedt, Founder and Chairman of the Womanity Foundation and Antonella Notari Vischer, Executive director of the Womanity Foundation which works to accelerate progress for women and their communities. It empowers girls and women to shape their future and contribute to their equal and full social, economic and political participation in society. www.womanity.org
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