Without question, mobile has transformed our lives, altering the world’s social and economic landscape, boosting the global economy and supporting millions of jobs. Mobile is becoming increasingly entrenched in our everyday lives, fundamentally changing the way that we go shopping, make payments, listen to music, access social media, watch videos, do business and so much more. For millions of people worldwide, though, their mobile device is not seen as a luxury, but as a necessity; in some cases, it can even be considered a lifeline. In emerging markets, mobile is often the only way to access the internet and to benefit from advances in remote health care, education and financial services.
However, while mobile phone adoption continues to increase, with more than 4.7 billion unique mobile subscribers worldwide, there are still many people who do not own a mobile phone, a large proportion of which are women.
In an increasingly connected world, women are unfortunately being left behind. According to GSMA research, nearly two-thirds of unconnected females live in the South Asia and East Asia and Pacific regions, and women in South Asia are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This gender gap increases when we look at more transformational services like the mobile internet and mobile money, which deliver significant digital and financial inclusion opportunities for women.
This discrepancy urgently needs to be tackled for a number of important socio-economic considerations. Mobile phones are valued by women as a means to enhancing their lives, making them feel more autonomous and connected, able to access new education and employment opportunities, and save time and money. However, simply increasing mobile phone ownership does not solve the problem as even when women do own a mobile device, they are far less likely to use it for services such as mobile internet and mobile money.
The reality is that mobile phones can actively empower women, helping them feel more connected and safe and providing access to information and life-enhancing opportunities – everything from safeguarding maternal health and birth registration to remote learning and entrepreneurship. Mobile is critically important for creating positive outcomes for women’s families and wider communities, so more needs to be done to ensure financial and digital inclusion for women because when they thrive, so does society as a whole.
How can we drive change and ensure women are very much part of the digital world in which we now live? Above all, deliberate action and targeted intervention are needed to make this a reality. Women face many barriers to owning and using mobile phones, including cost, network quality and coverage, fear of having their mobile phones stolen or being harassed by strangers, technical literacy and confidence. Furthermore, social norms and the disparities between men and women in education and income often mean that women experience these barriers more acutely than men. To tackle this, mobile operators in these regions are employing innovative approaches.
While these and other similar measures are certainly a step in the right direction, the mobile industry, policy makers and other key stakeholders need to work together closely to ensure women all over the world can realize the benefits of mobile services. To help realize a future where there is parity for mobile phone ownership, the GSMA recently launched its Connected Women Commitment Initiative to help reduce the global mobile gender gap. Initial commitments by GSMA operator members, with over 75 million mobile internet and mobile money customers, aim to reduce the gender gap in their customer base and connect millions more women in low- and middle-income countries by 2020.
This rise in female mobile customers will help support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Through long-term, coordinated and concerted efforts amongst the GSMA’s operator members around the globe, we are focused on connecting millions more women, providing access to life-changing mobile internet and mobile money services and closing the digital gender gap so that half the world’s population is no longer left behind.
Claire Sibthorpe is Head of Connected Women, Mobile for Development, GSMA