Research shows girls in emerging markets are far less likely to have access to a mobile phone than boys. This mobile gender gap impacts access to education, opportunity and work. Which is why the Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect are working together to change this – with a virtual friend creating safe spaces to ask questions online.
It’s easy to take your mobile phone for granted.
Yet a tech-savvy young person armed with one can supplement their education with digital learning, gain access to business loans and mobile banking services, and enjoy the benefits of free resources like Wikipedia and Youtube.
Technology has profound social and economic impact on those who can access it.
But in this increasingly connected world, others are at risk of being left behind. Can mobile technology be harnessed as a tool to support them, too?
Despite the wide reach of mobile connectivity in emerging markets, a 2018 global study by non-profit Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation highlighted the deep-seated prejudices that continue to hamper girls’ access to mobile.
After speaking to more than 3,000 girls and boys in 25 countries, the study revealed that more than two-thirds (67%) of boys surveyed reported owning a phone, compared to 44% of girls.
This disparity in ownership had a knock-on effect: only 28% of boys needed to borrow a mobile, compared to more than half (52%) for girls.
“If parents give their son a mobile phone, the community doesn’t say anything, but when parents give a girl a phone, the community asks questions,” says Nisha, a 17-year-old from India.
Picture credit: Girl Effect
Phone a friend
Dr. Ronda Zelezny-Green, a technology policy expert with a particular focus on mobile, goes further.
“Often it’s framed in a way like, ‘Oh, they’re just going to use it for mindless purposes; Oh, they’re trying to hook up with boys,’” she says.
“I think these negative perceptions belie the utility which men themselves have experienced, and somehow forgotten that women can also experience these benefits, too.”
Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundation have committed to give seven million vulnerable girls across eight countries access to the services they need through mobile.
“In many countries access to mobile is key to a girls’ health, learning and development,” says Andrew Dunnett, director of the Foundation.
“We need to face the reality that girls and boys do not have equal access to mobile, and design services that reach the girls and meet their needs in this context.”
Together with Girl Effect, the Foundation is pioneering new ways to use mobile as a tool to support adolescent girls, including artificial intelligence (AI), interactive voice response (IVR), chatbots and more.
The Springster platform, which is available free across Africa, digitally connects girls to content and information designed to empower them and build confidence, knowledge and skills.
The website has 3.5m users, while 420,000 girls access Springster through social media. It also features a ‘Big Sis’ chatbot that offers advice and answers in a private and non-judgemental space.
The Springster platform. Picture credit: Girl Effect
As part of this global programme, Girl Effect and Vodacom Tanzania Foundation have launched Tujibebe – a mobile-based brand aimed at young people in Tanzania aged 14 – 19, with a particular focus on adolescent girls.
The name means “let’s lift ourselves up, together” in Swahili.
Tujibebe encourages entrepreneurism, with practical and interactive content.
Girls can access the service’s IVR line via Vodacom to hear on-demand audio content featuring stories about a bajaji driver called Shukuru.
She gives her passengers friendly advice on topics like setting up your own business, preparing for an interview, or negotiating with parents. There are also tips based on the real-life experiences of successful female entrepreneurs and soon will provide direct links to local services – both online and offline – like accessing skills building courses.
“Young people often have a huge range of questions about their future that they don’t know how to act on – from the right skills to get a job, ways to safely make money or how to save for the future,” says Girl Effect CEO Jess Posner Odede.
“We’ve launched Tujibebe so that when girls go online, they can access content that is entertaining, informative and relevant to their everyday lives.”
Picture credit: Girl Effect
Connected she can
Ms Posner Odede hopes tailor-made digital spaces for girls will allay parental fears about safety, and encourage girls to imagine a different future for themselves.
In addition to Tujibebe’s IVR line, a moderated website, Tujibebe.co.tz, encourages girls to share their stories and seek advice from their peers in a safe and supportive space.
A network of clubs will be piloted in Dar es Salaam that provide offline spaces where girls can engage with Tujibebe’s content together.
And there are plans to launch a Tujibebe chatbot on Facebook and WhatsApp that will offer girls a private way to ask questions about the topics covered by the IVR content.
“The landscape is shifting really quickly, but it is a frontier where girls get left behind both in terms of access and in terms of spaces online that are created for them,” says Ms Posner Odede.
Girl Effect, she hopes, will start to accommodate that need. Rather than assume a top-down style, the non-profit prefers a community-led approach that allows girls’ voices to be heard.
Insights from their research, coupled with an understanding of behavior-change science, are translated into mobile and media-based solutions that empower girls to take charge of their health, education, and economic future.
“Girls know what their challenges are and how to solve them – part of what we need to do is listen better,” she says.
As girls use mobile technology for their own advancement, Ms Posner Odede believes societal attitudes will shift with them.
“What girls start to do changes their community. For example, if girls start to seek reproductive health services, over time, behavior changes – and norms change.”
Picture credit: Girl Effect
Despite the progress made so far, Dr Zelezny-Green is wary of solutions that “leapfrog” beyond current conditions. Millions of people are still unconnected, while of those that are, millions more use basic models rather than smartphones.
“Don’t forget the feature phone that can do things like internet connectivity – it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a smartphone but it’s still very effective,’ she says.
“People need to get back to basics and make sure they’re really developing on the hardware that people have and making it relatable.”
In low and middle-income countries, 184 million fewer women own a phone than men according to a 2018 report from the GSMA. Increase their connectivity, and the economy will benefit as they gain the digital skills increasingly required in the workforce.
There are compelling business reasons to close the digital gender gap, too: an estimated additional $140 billion in revenue could be made by the mobile industry if women in these countries became phone owners by 2023.
But it’s the ability to access information – and make their own decisions through mobile, which is critical for girls, with many of those interviewed by Girl Effect describing mobile phones as a ‘gateway’.
In the words of one 19 year old girl from Bangladesh:
“We can connect globally, get to know more about what we are studying…We can know about the things that are unknown.”
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