NEW YORK — At the Clinton Global Initiative in September, Tata Communications and MasterCard announced a big investment. Their plan? To give 100 million cell phones to women in developing nations.
The initiative, called Next3B, aims to close the gender disparity in mobile connectivity worldwide.
Currently, there are three billion cell phone users worldwide. Of those users, there are 300 million less woman than men who own cell phones. With projections for another three billion new cell phone users over the next decade, Next3B wants to ensure that at least half of those users are women.
With cell phones, women can gain access to key tools to lift themselves out of poverty. One way they can do this is by taking advantage of mobile apps.
Around the world, there are 569 million women and young girls who cannot read or write. This number is disproportionately higher than illiteracy and enrollment figures for men and young boys. For most of these people, illiteracy is due to a lack of available books or texts. Giving cell phones to women could be a major tool to change that.
In fact, recent studies already prove that to be the case. In a UNESCO report from 2014, of 4,330 surveyed in developing countries, 62 percent of respondents reported that they read more now that they have a mobile phone.
In addition, as mobile connectivity increases so does the proportion of women readers. Among the top 2,000 active readers surveyed, 59 percent are women.
But mobile connectivity is not only helpful for individual women and girls. Teachers are finding that now they have more books at their disposal than ever before.
In an interview with UNESCO, Charles, a teacher from Zimbabwe said, “We live in a remote area where there are no libraries, and the books I have in my own small library are the ones which I have already read. So this is now giving me a chance to choose from a variety of fiction titles.”
Like Charles, many teachers in developing countries cite a lack of printed material as the primary reason why they do not read to their class. Therefore, increased mobile content is not only beneficial for children, but for teaching skills as well.
“Reading means a lot to me because, when I read, I increase my experience, knowledge and scope of learning,” says Abdulhameed, a teacher from Nigeria. “I also read to be able to carry out my work more effectively. I need to read very widely to be able to talk about problems in the classroom.”
With increased cell phone usage, apps like WorldReader Mobile and Kobo eBooks have the potential to increase both the quantity and quality of education.
Putting cell phones in the hands of women is also a financial investment.
As digital financing grows, women without cell phones are at an economic disadvantage. In developing countries, women often do not have access to bank accounts. This leaves them in an incredibly vulnerable position as they hide money in their houses, which makes them targets for thieves. Also, without a bank account, women cannot get a loan in times of emergency.
According to Melinda Gates, mobile financing could allow more than two billion people to open their first bank accounts, thus taking the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty. As 80 percent of the microfinance industry’s poorest clients are women, proprietorship of a mobile phone can lead to financial independence and stability.
One research group estimates that closing the mobile gender gap could bring $170 billion to the mobile industry alone over the next five years.
“We see an opportunity and responsibility to empower women with access to and control over their finances through digital financial tools. By financially including women around the globe, we take an important step towards poverty alleviation, equality and economic prosperity,” says vice Chairman of MasterCard Walt Macnee.
Next3B plans to launch pilot programs for 25,000 women in India, Nigeria, Guatemala and Indonesia. They hope to reach their goal of 100 million cell phones within the next five years.
Sources: Huffington Post, Kobo eBooks, New York Times, Next3B, Tata Communications, UNESCO 1, UNESCO 2, 62MillionGirls