NEW YORK – Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Tuesday that mobile phones are most powerful in the hands of the world's poorest women.
In rich countries, a mobile phone is just a tool to make it easier for people to do things, but for the world's most marginalized women, a mobile phone does not just make their old life more convenient, it can help them build an entirely new life, Melinda said in the Bill and Melinda Gates 2019 annual letter released Tuesday.
If you are a woman who has never stepped into a bank, mobile banking offers you a foothold in the formal economy and a chance at financial independence, she said. If you are expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, your income potential improves dramatically as you gain opportunities to connect with customers, trainings, and professional organizations all from your home, she said.
If you are worried about the stigma you will encounter when you ask for contraceptives at your local clinic, an e-commerce delivery platform can help you reassert control over your body and your future, Melinda said. "In other words, women are not only using their mobile phones to access services and opportunities.
They're using them to change social norms and challenge the power structures that perpetuate gender inequality," she said. But the catch is that the gender gap in both mobile phone ownership and mobile internet use remains significant. A recent study of 10 countries across Africa, Asia, and South America found that, regardless of their age, education, wealth, or location, women are almost 40 percent less likely than men to have used the internet.
There are a lot of reasons why this gap exists, such as cost, literacy, and social norms. In Kenya and Nigeria, gender and development programs are putting a new focus on teaching women digital literacy skills, she said, adding that the foundation has partnered with an initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School to begin testing solutions to the social norms barrier.
In the letter, Melinda talked about an Indonesian woman named Nikmah. After struggling with a very difficult life for years, Nikmah established her business with the help of a mobile phone app, which changed the lives of her children and herself.
"For women like her who have spent so much of their lives trapped at the bottom, mobile technology creates new opportunities to fight inequity and lift themselves up. We can help women seize these opportunities by ensuring that inequity doesn't keep them from having access to technology in the first place," Melinda said.