There are many reasons why mobile phones are emerging as a tool to empower women in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular. A recent article in one of the daily newspapers (Newsday June 25, 2012 p.6) suggests that, “the emergence of mobile technologies and social networks is placing power in the hands of women, as they leapfrog traditional communications infrastructures with a minimum of investment, making the networks easier, more widely accessible and less expensive to build out.”
There are many potential benefits and opportunities of targeting women in Zimbabwe with mobile phones and mobile-based projects, including economic gains, increased access to information, greater autonomy, social empowerment, and a greater sense of security and safety.
A women horticulture business group in the Seke District in Mashonaland East have been enjoying success over the past two years as a result of increased use of mobile technology.
“Mobile phones have helped so much with the business – it is absolutely crucial for distribution and marketing," said one of the group members Ms Juliet Alumenda. “We do not have an office or showroom, so people from Harare (the capital city) just ring us on the mobile to place orders.”
Stories like this are not rare. Across Zimbabwe, mobile phones have contributed to economic gains for women. A 2011 study by Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) on Africa which included a case study on Zimbabwe highlighted the benefits of women’s ownership of mobile phones, such as a 41 percent increase in their income generating opportunities and 81 percent increase in independence.
A study of micro-enterprises by the second largest mobile provider in Zimbabwe – Telecel recently found that cell phones have impacted micro-enterprises, especially those owned by women. Mobiles increase perceptions of confidence and assist in increasing women’s economic activities. The research further notes that mobile phones improve business efficiency through the use of add-ons such as the mobile calendar, calculator, and alarm. Women entrepreneurs also reported a high sense of control of their business as well as in personal and domestic life.
Mobile phones also provide an avenue for women to gain education and access to information. According to Kubatana.net, a social platform in Zimbabwe, mobile phones in the hands of rural women can help them understand what kind of reduced fee programs or educational incentives there might be for getting a daughter into school. “If they have a cell phone they know where to go and how to get in touch with a staff member, government or social worker and get the right information,” Kubatana says. And access to information via mobile may have a ripple effect on the rest of the household.
Access to or ownership of a mobile phone can also help a woman feel more autonomous. In Zimbabwe as reported by IRIN, women’s interest in learning how to send SMS messages drives increased demand for literacy and numeracy. In Bulawayo – the second largest city in Zimbabwe women are beginning to use the anonymity of mobile phones to build virtual support groups for those living positively. Thus, from income to education to health – access to mobile phones can result in greater social empowerment for women as they gain new assets and responsibilities.
Socially, mobile phones can help women feel more connected to others. The GSMA Africa women mobile study found that the benefits of women’s ownership of mobile phones in Zimbabwe included 93 percent felt more connected to family and friends.
Many women also use mobile phones in their role as caretaker for the family, including emergencies such as a call to the hospital. If a woman is comfortable with technology she can use the phone to even make appointments and take family members to the right doctor/clinic.
However, despite the above mentioned advantages, some women interviewed noted that they are some barriers and limitations to accessing mobile phone technology. Some of the barriers highlighted include:
• The total cost of ownership (including price of handset, services, and charging)
• Women’s own fear of being able to master technology
• A perceived lack of need for mobile phones
• Cultural barriers, including traditional attitudes toward women’s ownership of productive assets
Despite the above mentioned barriers, mobile phones are indeed an empowerment tool that has potential to empower women in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa.