Earlier this month, the SAIS Global Women in Leadership Conference held their second annual event in Washington, DC where the subject of technology as a force for positive change in women’s lives around the world was discussed and debated by a wide range of policy experts.
“Technology in Action: Changing the Way Women Live and Work” gathered a group of development specialists from the private, public and non-profit sectors for a day-long conference to examine how technology is promoting women’s economic empowerment in the developing world.
Kathy Calvin, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, spoke about the work that UNF is doing in the developing world. Their research shows that when women are economically empowered, entire communities benefit. Jobs increase women’s earnings, help boost self-confidence and bargaining power at home, and delay early marriage and pregnancy. When women earn, society as a whole benefits, through increased investments in children’s schooling and health, reduced poverty for all and enhanced aspirations for the next generation of girls and women, UNF’s research shows. Technology can help this process in myriad ways, Calvin said.
Kathy Calvin kicks off annual conference with keynote speech
Christopher Burns, a Senior Advisor and Team Lead for Mobile Access at USAID, said that issues around technology aren’t gender neutral in the developing world when it comes to women’s empowerment.
“We need to make sure access to mobile technology, and the services that they bring to rural women, are geared to the poor and readily available,” he said. Under this banner, he spoke about how rural women in regions as diverse as Sub-Saharan Africa and South America are using mobile phones for a wide range of services from banking to health care to which they had little access before the availability of mobile technology. Cell phones – even the most basic models – are allowing women to transmit critical pregnancy data to regional health centers to make sure babies are developing on target and also allowing fairly sophisticated micro-finance programs to be conducted via mobile networks.
Mayra Buvinic, Senior Fellow at UNF, said that basic cell phones are giving rural women the privacy they need to participate in microfinance schemes. In many societies and cultures, poor women are pressured into giving away hard-gotten profits from micro-finance schemes. Studies have shown that men and women act differently when credit is allocated to poor individuals so business outcomes often are not as positive for women. But the mobile phone can change that.
Jalak Jobanputra, Managing Partner at FuturePerfect Ventures, an impact investment venture capital firm, said she was very encouraged by the use of technology in general in the developing world, and mobile phones specifically for women. She said she has seen a significant increase in the use of mobile devices by women conducting a multitude of business transactions in Africa in a short period of time. “This will only increase as mobile literacy flourishes,” she said, “and that’s a very good thing.” She said the question of affordability still needs to be addressed while content has to be adapted to particular countries to make it locally relevant for women across the global.
Most conference participants agreed that there is not a one-size-fits-all technology policy that is workable for women’s empowerment so that programs of support must be adjusted for individual markets to make it a success.