Last week, I read an interesting blog post from Linda Raftree about an NYC and London Technology Salon session on how mobile phones are improving the reach and impact of women empowerment initiatives. In the Tech Salon, they quote a GSMA estimate that mobile technology penetration in developing countries will reach 100% by 2015, which I find doubtful as there are still many living on less than a dollar a day who will choose food over mobile access (plus, GSMA has separately predicted that by 2017 unique mobile subscriptions will reach only 47% in developing countries – still, that is huge penetration, and if that 47% is of the total population, then it is close to 100% mobile penetration among individuals who are 15 or older). Even if penetration does not reach 100%, the meteoric rise of mobile phones in developing countries is staggering and has changed the lives of many living in extreme poverty.

Some concern was raised as to whether this excludes women and girls who are often given phones after the man of the house or the firstborn son gets one. This is only in those households that can afford multiple phones. There are probably many households that can afford only one phone in which case women’s empowerment is not augmented, as the women or girls may never have the opportunity to get a mobile phone. However, one behavior I noticed among the youth in Nairobi slums is that while many of the teenagers did not own a mobile phone, those who did would share, letting others use their phone. One phone would be passed around and ‘tried’ out by all their friends and acquaintances. Perhaps owning a phone is out of reach for many, but learning how to use a phone by trying a friend’s seems to be quite common. This bodes well for community service initiatives; as youth share phones, the programs reach a wider audience.

Ms. Raftree mentions several additional benefits to using mobile phones – that they increase women empowerment, for example, by improving the reach and access of women who may normally be unreachable and providing information or skills to help them get a better job. In addition, getting geographically relevant information to youth who may normally be unreachable seems to be a huge benefit that could be explored further. Mobile technology allows initiatives and programs to reach women and girls who might be either geographically or culturally excluded from opportunities to improve their lives.