How smartphones are a powerful tool for gender empowerment

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India is the second largest market in the world for mobile phones and is one of the primary drivers for mobile subscriptions growth worldwide . However, the numbers are heavily skewed in favour of men. Additionally, Indian women lag behind in areas such as labour markets, access to banking, and physical mobility. Ironically, mobile phones are tremendously empowering devices, which provide access to information, access to markets and access to financial services. Mobile phones thus have a huge potential to reduce these gender disparities. However, the stark reality is that Indian women are 34.5 percentage points less likely to own a phone than men (FII, 2016). Phone costs and technical literacy keep more women than men from using mobile phones. Handsets, especially for smartphones, are often too costly for women.

Research shows that mobile technology can help close gender disparities by providing access to better opportunities to women. Smartphones can help bridge the literacy, education and skill gap by providing access to online courses through MOOCs, which have the benefit of access to educational content anytime, anywhere, in flexible self-paced modules. Smartphones can help in providing women a level playing field in terms of getting access to the livelihood and job opportunities available. There are many platforms and mobile apps that provide this information. NRLM’s Bihan app in Chhattisgarh, provides a platform for small women entrepreneurs to upload the pictures of handicraft poducts and artwork that they have created, after which NRLM helps them market these products. There are apps like Chhattisgarh Rojgar Samachar that provide information about open government jobs in the state. There are other privately owned job platforms where users can view job openings matched by skills of the user for e.g. a carpenter can search for jobs specific to carpentry.

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Women can also use the smartphone to access information and gain awareness on health issues and best practices. Thus smartphones can enable women to take better care of their own health as well as the health of their families. Today, access to banking is no longer as big a challenge as it used to be a few years ago. Banking is now available at our fingertips with the advent of m-banking. There are plenty of apps that help in raising awareness and improving financial literacy. One can even open and operate bank accounts with the help of their phones. There are apps available that educate users about microfinance and other types of loans, and also help them apply for these loans. Thus smartphones also help in improving financial literacy and inclusion. M-PESA [2] is a mobile phone-based money transfer service launched in 2007 in Kenya. Access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty. Moreover, the impacts, which are more pronounced for female-headed households, appear to be driven by changes in financial behaviour—increased financial resilience and saving—and labour market outcomes, such as occupational choice, especially for women, who moved out of agriculture and into business. Mobile money has therefore increased the efficiency of the allocation of consumption over time while allowing a more efficient allocation of labour, resulting in a meaningful reduction of poverty in Kenya. If more women had access to smartphones in India, perhaps we could see such a revolution here too.

Women who are aware, educated, healthy and financially aware and independent are empowered women, and a smartphone provides many avenues to achieve this. Chhattisgarh government is providing access to these opportunities to the women of the state via the SKY Scheme – the first of its kind and the world’s largest such programme. One of the primary goals of the SKY Scheme is to empower women and help close gender disparities by providing women access to information and services through smartphones. Providing smart phones to women in every rural family and every urban poor household is going to make a dramatic difference to bridging the gender divide. This is the first programme of this kind anywhere in the world.

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