Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity

by Isobel Coleman
October 12, 2011

Last week, I sat down with Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, to discuss how her organization is focusing on closing the mobile phone gender gap. Cherie was later joined by Maura O’Neill, senior counselor to the administrator and chief innovation officer for USAID; and Trina DasGupta, director of the GSMA mWomen Programme in a meeting that we hosted as part of the CFR-ExxonMobil Women and Technology Roundtable Series. I’ve invited Cherie, Trina, and Maura to explain in a guest blog post how they are working together to implement the mWomen Programme to increase women’s access to cell phones.

Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity

By Cherie Blair, Maura O’Neill, and Trina DasGupta

Mobile phones are life-changing tools that can connect people not only to each other, but also to income generating opportunities and a world of information. Cell phones are being used to battle political corruption, enhance education and literacy efforts, save lives in the face of humanitarian disasters, conduct business transactions, increase access to capital, and improve health. This is especially true in developing and emerging markets where cell phone penetration has exponentially grown. Today, over 70 percent of global cell phone subscribers live in the developing world.

However, women face unique barriers to mobile phone ownership. Technical literacy; perceived lack of need; the total cost of ownership, including handsets, airtime, and electricity for charging mobile phones; and cultural issues, such as the traditional roles of men and women, all contribute to the mobile phone gender gap of 300 million women in low and middle-income countries.

According to a report published by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and the GSMA, Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity, cell phones improve women’s lives:  93 percent of female mobile phone users feel safer with a phone, 85 percent feel more independent, and 41 percent use their phones to increase their income and professional opportunities. Moreover, closing the gender gap is not only good for women and development, it’s good for business. Adding 300 million women subscribers could generate $13 billion in immediate incremental revenue for mobile phone operators.

Over the long-term, the opportunity is even greater. It is estimated that in the next five years, there will be 600 million new female subscribers, accounting for two out of every three potential new mobile phone customers. This provides mobile operators with the opportunity to boost their annual collective revenues by $29 billion.

This is why USAID, GSMA, and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women are working to implement the mWomen Programme. We want to facilitate a fundamental shift in the way mobile phone business is being done – making women and gender a part of everyday business opportunities.

When we launched this innovative public-private partnership one year ago, we realized that making it successful would be difficult. But, with the support of our other partners, we have conducted local educational campaigns on the benefits of mobile phones for women in countries such as India and Qatar. We have invested in research on the wants and needs of the base-of-the-pyramid women (women living on less than $2 a day) to determine what value-added-services would be most beneficial for them, and we have investigated how more women can tap into economic opportunities of the mobile retail chain. We are working with the mobile industry to build the business case for operators to invest in markets for low income women. At the end of the day, it is profitable business models that will make mobile access for poor women sustainable. In addition, GSMA mWomen hosts a Working Group of 30 mobile operators representing 115 countries in the developing world who have pledged their support to closing the mobile phone gender gap, working together to share best practices. We also conduct pilots in the main value added services of health, education, finance, and entrepreneurship to determine what services are most needed and to share lessons about replication and scalability.

We are excited about the opportunities this partnership has and will continue to bring. We hope it serves as a model for other collaborative efforts to effectively channel expertise and resources to achieve broader international development goals. Partners who are interested in collaborating and expanding this space around women and technology as a 21st century solution to development, please get in touch. To find out more information visit:

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