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A Cellphone for Every Woman

James D. Wolfensohn, The New York Times, 15 June 2012

Start by giving every woman a cellphone.

AS world leaders gather next week in Brazil for the Rio+20 summit meeting on sustainable development, poverty fighting will be high on the agenda. Gender inequity should be, as well. In a world where women hold less than 20 percent of all legislative seats, 70 percent of the poorest people — those who live on less than $1.25 a day — are women, and 4 million more women die each year than men, a result of poor families’ preferences for male infants and underinvestment in women’s and girls’ health.

These numbers are unconscionable. And while we know that investments in women’s education, health and economic participation are necessary to bridging the gender gap, it can take a long time for those changes to happen. What can be done for all the women who struggle with inequalities right now?

Start by giving every woman a cellphone.

For people around the world, the spread of mobile technology has been a boon, allowing them to seize new economic opportunities, share information more quickly and organize public action. But women in low- and middle-income countries are 21 percent less likely to own a cellphone than men — that’s 300 million women who have missed out on most of the opportunities that having a cellphone brings. In rural areas, this lack of connection with others is even more isolating.

Do cellphones really make a difference? Yes, they do, in more ways than we perhaps could have imagined. Among women who own cellphones in low- and middle-income countries, 41 percent have increased their income or economic opportunities as a result, 85 percent feel more independent and 90 percent feel safer and more connected with friends and family.

In 2008, the leaders of newly independent Kosovo began the work of building a new state and drafting a constitution. Hamide Latifi, the country director for Women for Women International, a nonprofit group that helps women who have survived violent conflict rebuild their lives, realized that the voices of women, particularly those of rural and marginalized women, were not represented in the process. Ms. Latifi argued for days with the constitutional commission, pushing for greater women’s participation. The commission finally gave in, but the delay meant that Ms. Latifi had less than 48 hours to reach out to women in rural areas and transport them to Drenas, a town in central Kosovo, to join in a key public forum for drafting the constitution.

The staff at Women for Women International took to the phones, contacting graduates of their program across the country and encouraging them to spread the word in their communities. In less than two days, they were able to gather 250 women to participate in the forum. Most of these women were survivors of the war in Kosovo; many had lost husbands and family members in the violence. They spoke about the need to address gender equality in the new constitution and to make provisions for the many women who were widowed during the war.

The constitution included an article that guaranteed women’s equality in the new republic and protected women’s participation in all aspects of public life. Without the power of mobile technology, the Constitution of Kosovo might very well not have included those protections.

The capacity of new technologies, like cellphones, to bridge the gender gap is enormous, and we are only just discovering this potential. Technology — from smokeless cooking stoves that save women time collecting firewood to treadle water pumps that allow women to irrigate fields more effectively — can improve productivity and allow women to participate and compete in an interconnected world.

Financing for cheap and widely available cellphones can be provided by the telecommunications companies themselves, with money from private donors, including nonprofit groups and development banks that are committed to long-term poverty alleviation. Continued investments in education, health and social services, coupled with technological investments in women themselves, can mean a whole new level of impact.It will take all of us to make this happen: governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and private citizens.

We can no longer afford to let investments in women fall to the bottom of our list of priorities. When half the population suffers from the lack of economic, political, health and education opportunities, we all suffer.

James D. Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005, is the author of the memoir “A Global Life: My Journey Among Rich and Poor, From Sydney to Wall Street to the World Bank.”

The New York Times article