June 15, 2012 - As world leaders gather in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit
meeting on sustainable development, poverty fighting will be high on the
agenda. Gender inequity should be, as well. In a world where women hold less
than 20 percent of all legislative seats, 70 percent of the poorest people —
those who live on less than $1.25 a day — are women, and 4 million more women
die each year than men, a result of poor families’ preferences for male infants
and underinvestment in women’s and girls’ health.
These numbers are unconscionable. And while we know
that investments in women’s education, health and economic participation are
necessary to bridging the gender gap, it can take a long time for those changes
to happen. What can be done for all the women who struggle with inequalities
Start by giving every woman a cellphone.
For people around the world, the spread of mobile
technology has been a boon, allowing them to seize new economic opportunities,
share information more quickly and organize public action. But women in low-
and middle-income countries are 21 percent less likely to own a cellphone than
men — that’s 300 million women who have missed out on most of the opportunities
that having a cellphone brings. In rural areas, this lack of connection with
others is even more isolating.
Do cellphones really make a difference? Yes,
they do, in more ways than we perhaps could have imagined. Among women who own
cellphones in low- and middle-income countries, 41 percent have increased their
income or economic opportunities as a result, 85 percent feel more independent
and 90 percent feel safer and more connected with friends and family.
In 2008, the leaders of newly independent Kosovo began
the work of building a new state and drafting a constitution. Hamide Latifi,
the country director for Women for Women International, a nonprofit group that
helps women who have survived violent conflict rebuild their lives, realized
that the voices of women, particularly those of rural and marginalized women,
were not represented in the process. Ms. Latifi argued for days with the
constitutional commission, pushing for greater women’s participation. The
commission finally gave in, but the delay meant that Ms. Latifi had less than
48 hours to reach out to women in rural areas and transport them to Drenas, a
town in central Kosovo, to join in a key public forum for drafting the
The staff at Women for Women International took to the
phones, contacting graduates of their program across the country and
encouraging them to spread the word in their communities. In less than two
days, they were able to gather 250 women to participate in the forum. Most of
these women were survivors of the war in Kosovo; many had lost husbands and
family members in the violence. They spoke about the need to address gender
equality in the new constitution and to make provisions for the many women who
were widowed during the war.
The constitution included an article that guaranteed
women’s equality in the new republic and protected women’s participation in all
aspects of public life. Without the power of mobile technology, the
Constitution of Kosovo might very well not have included those protections.
The capacity of new technologies, like
cellphones, to bridge the gender gap is enormous, and we are only just
discovering this potential. Technology — from smokeless cooking stoves that
save women time collecting firewood to treadle water pumps that allow women to
irrigate fields more effectively — can improve productivity and allow women to
participate and compete in an interconnected world.
Financing for cheap and widely available cellphones can
be provided by the telecommunications companies themselves, with money from
private donors, including nonprofit groups and development banks that are
committed to long-term poverty alleviation. Continued investments in education,
health and social services, coupled with technological investments in women
themselves, can mean a whole new level of impact.It will take all of us to make
this happen: governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and private
We can no longer afford to let investments in women
fall to the bottom of our list of priorities. When half the population suffers
from the lack of economic, political, health and education opportunities, we
*James D. Wolfensohn is a past president of the World Bank.