Access of ICTs to rural women can substantially improve their livelihoods and household incomes, their health and that of their children, husbands and communities
Measuring the feminine contribution
Gender considerations have become more and more prevalent in the discourses on applications of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for development in the last few years. New research, case studies and analysis are emerging, replacing the earlier wave of advocacy and awareness raising articles on ICTs as tools for women's economic empowerment. For a long time, ICTs were suspected to help enable women in developing knowledge, skills and techniques towards effective human development. Unfortunately and until today, the world lacks a monitoring and evaluation framework with gender disaggregated indicators related to ICT usage and impact by women. As the popular adage has it, what cannot be measured does not count, and perhaps the lack of a consolidated set of indicators related to ICTs usage and production by females, half of the word's population, reflects a deeper set of socio-economic stereotypes and taboos related to women, sciences and technologies. These subconscious mechanisms have not yet been shaken hard enough to create action-oriented change, which would be translated into setting up gender-based ICT indicators.
For the last five years preceding the World Summits on Information Society (WSIS1 in Geneva, December 2003 and WSIS2 in Tunis, November 2005) the World Bank Group (WBG), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and several multilateral agencies, donor groups, women NGOs, Gender Caucuses and private sector associations have been proposing specific gender-based indicators, to track progress in usage and productions of ICTs by women. The blue print and design exist. What is still needed is implementation at the national level (and hence, leadership, resources, skills etc.). With a few emerging exceptions that we know of (Ghana, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Brazil, etc.), governments are not yet implementing base-line studies with gender indicators. These indicators do exist, world wide, in the education sector, as statistical offices, national education agencies and private educational institutions have traditionally kept count of student enrollment, graduation and achievement scores on a gender disaggregated basis. In fact this type of data is heavily used by United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Economic Forum (WEF) and others on assessing the impact and roles of women in Sciences and Technologies, innovation, entrepreneurship, and knowledge economy.
Gender disaggregation: Role of the private sector
The private sector is missing the boat, in a world where apparently 80 percent of household purchasing decisions are made by women: Private sector is only starting to think of gender in its analysis of target market segments. Mobile telephone providers, data providers or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have no way to account for the proportion of their female subscribers, even in developed economies. Not very surprisingly, the author of this article is consistently addressed to as 'Sir' in all marketing letters sent by cable TV providers, fixed line providers, and all their competitors, in the US. One could possibly infer from the above mentioned trend that for operators, women never really counted as a sustainable market segment in their return on investment or Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) calculations. Many operators fail to recognise women as avid absorbers and consumers of the new technologies and technology-enabled services. To reverse this trend, many content providers, now-a-days, are trying to provide localised, contextual content that is of special appeal to women. Even though the exact breakdown of mobile telephone usage amongst male and female is not available, it is fair to assume that women have the same access that men do to mobile phones as 3.3 billion people, half the planet, now own mobile phones. Empirical evidence shows that these phones are shared within families and households. Hence, both men and women can communicate by voice or data (such as by sending and receiving SMS messages) with the outside world and break their geographical and physical isolation. This alone is a major fallout of the ICTs revolution as for the first time, both men and women got equal access to the same information, eliminating the potential abuse of power which usually results from asymmetric information access and utilisation. There are alarming stories from backward societies (such as isolated reports of hanging women carrying cellular phones in Taliban-dominated territories) but these are mostly exceptions, and will not be sustained; as history has shown the flow of information is unstoppable, and that it will, overall, improve societies' well-being.
Information and economic development
By and large, most societies and regimes have understood the critical role of access to information in accelerating economic development and growth. For the last twenty years, governments and policy makers have been reforming telecom sector policies and regulatory frameworks in order to create a vibrant and competitive telecom domain that is not only national in nature but also involves lower costs and quality services for the citizens. Several governments, helped by donors such as the World Bank Group, have launched national strategies to expand access to all its citizens, by using reverse subsidies to attract the private sector; and by an efficient usage of universal service funds. Their objective is access for all, men and women alike; even if we cannot really account for 'all' in a sex disaggregated way, at least not yet. The enormous success of the Grameen Village Phone experience in Bangladesh has no doubt help raise the profile of women, mostly illiterate, as users and entrepreneurs in the ICT sector and in the micro finance space. The replication of the model in Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda etc. will help to establish and consolidate the role of women. It is all about image, and one day the change in image will dictate a change in the indicators.
There is huge and untapped revenue potential, as content itself becomes more and more feminine, and/or of utility for women. As most of our rural development projects try to reach out remote villages, ICT can and has been used very effectively to connect isolated populations. Several WBG funded programmes focus on the poor youth, on gender, on minorities, lower castes and handicapped by building capacity within the community to operate and manage village-based information centres. ICTs may be used for three purposes: (a) building awareness, basic information access and hence empowerment, among the poor especially youth and women (b) for income generating activities – accessing market information, pricing, employment information, and links with other agencies and local/global supply chain; (c) getting access to funding and microfinance, especially as mobile banking trends move from the main cities to the rural areas; (d) monitoring village level project activities, use of funds and benefits and disseminating lessons and learning among the community and by the community itself.
Women as producers of information: Indonesia
According to Indonesia's Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI)'s e-Strategy Report (2004), many women's groups in rural areas got organised around micro-credit assistance, using the new technologies provided such as computers for maintaining their accounts, acquiring skills in manufacturing, understanding their industries (such as craft, agro-business or farming products) to produce superior products, or to provide new information-based services to their communities. Survey of these groups reveals that women has been able to earn additional incomes. The women's cooperatives have proved to be model borrowers with outstanding record of repayments to banks and financing institutions, just as in other cases surveyed in Latin America (Equator, Bolivia, Brazil), Asia (China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India) and Africa. Operationalisation of cooperatives and micro finance institutions has also facilitated the production of local content and the frequent updating of such content.1 to the benefit of women, men and their communities; hence making women producers and guardians of the knowledge needed in local contexts. The caveat is that, women, just like men, are also victims of gender stereotype and bias. However, the new trend of information production had positive effect on women's image and self-esteem in the communities, and has built on women's abilities as knowledge gatherers and story tellers. A lot of the governments and donor funded programmes would benefit from using these types of indigenous knowledge producers, provide them with training and tools so that they could use these in turn to communicate best practices to their constituencies.
IT in health care: Andhra Pradesh, India
The project incorporated the use of handheld computers for primary health care workers to deliver their services to the rural population of Andhra Pradesh, India. Semi-literate midwives used mouse pads instead of paper to enter patient, as well as household, survey data. It reduced by 40-60 percent the time of the health workers in data entry and processing. Because of the use of computers, it made data electronically available for further analysis at higher levels of the health care system.
Grameen Bank: Bangladesh
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus's innovative venture to lend money to village ladies so that they can resell phone services and repay the micro-loan needed to acquire the handset and mobile service is noteworthy. Based on several impact evaluation studies, the income, a Village Phone Operator derives from the Village Phone, is higher than average local household income. In 2005, based on the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) report, the mobile phone village operator was making on average an average of $82/month, more than twice the per capita income.2 The Grameen Village Phone web site now reports on average household improvement for its 220,000 village phone operators in Bangladesh. In a recent book called 'hear me now', author Nicholas P. Sullivan reports that the village phone ladies in Bangladesh always repaid their loan, and earned on average between $300 and $750/year after repayment