By Lazarus Sauti
Despite the fact that 96 percent of Zimbabweans have cell phone services, according to a report by Afrobarometer, a pan-African and non-partisan research network, most women and girls in the country remain unconnected compared to men and boys.
The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MISC) 2014, testifies that 85.2 percent of young women aged 14-24 years and 88.6 percent of adult women aged 15-49 years used mobile or non-mobile phones during the last 12 months compared to 85.6 percent of young men aged 15-24 years and 90.3 percent of adult men aged 15-54 years.
This disparity in the gender digital divide, which is not only an equality as well as social issue, but also a critical challenge to growing economic sustainability is also visible in Kenya where, according to a 2010 survey, at least 49 percent Kenyan women aged 16+ owned a cellphone.
Further, countries such as Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have a mobile gender gap of more than 30 percent.
Women and girls in the African continent, notes the book “Rethinking Approaches: Reconsidering Strategies”, are 23 percent less likely to own cell phones and with the multiple uses of feature and smart phones, it sadly means they are at a greater disadvantage.
Sharing the same views, Tumi Chamayou, Ericsson’s vice-president, strategy and marketing for sub-Saharan Africa, affixed that despite significant progress in mobile penetration over the past few years in sub-Saharan Africa, the region is home to more than 300 million unconnected women.
Cost, without doubt, is the greatest barrier to using and owning a handset.
Forlornly, the disparity in the gender digital divide, caused by lack of connectivity, is not only violating women’s rights but also hindering their full contribution in all spheres of the society.
To promote full gender balance as well as full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society, as provided in Section 17 of the country’s supreme law, journalist and gender activist Garikai Mangongera says women need to be empowered technologically.
“Gender inequality remains deeply entrenched in many African societies and many girls and women in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries still do not have equal access to ICT tools,” he said.
“Accordingly, there is need to upscale the number of girls and women who own and use cell phones.”
Mangongera adds that cell phones are important tools for advancing gender equality, women and girl’s empowerment as well as a more equitable and prosperous continent.
Vaidah Mashangwa of the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, says access to ICT tools such as cellphones can be essential for women entrepreneurs in starting and growing a business.
“Women in rural set-ups, for example, can use cell phones to market their farm produce, their crafts and their livestock locally and regionally,” she says.
One project by the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation, adds Mashangwa, helped women in Tanzania to use ICT to develop businesses.
Beneficiaries of the project have described how something as simple as owning a mobile phone can help promote a grocery business as well as attract more clients.
ICT expert, Stalyn Chingarandi, says ownership of cell phones can enable girls and women, especially in rural Zimbabwe to send and receive money through mobile platforms like Eco-cash, Tele-cash as well as One Wallet.
“In line with the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which states that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres, owning a simple cell phone can transform the lives of girls and women.
“They can receive life changing messages as well as send and/or receive money via mobile platforms such as Eco-cash, Tele-cash and One Wallet,” he said, adding that instead of travelling to the nearest towns or cities, they can actually cut transport cost by receiving money from their rural homes.”
Chamayou believes giving girls and women cell phones will not only increase gross domestic product of most – if not all – African countries, but will also have a trickle-down effect on numerous industries critical for growth, including agriculture, health, financial services and across-the-board innovation.
“Instances of this correlation are being seen all over Europe,” he says, adding: “One of my favourite examples of how ICT innovation is specifically addressed to women is the Mobile Midwife by the Grameen Foundation, a global non profit organisation that works with government agencies, the private sector as well as civil society to develop mobile health solutions to improve health outcomes for the poor.
“This is a free mobile service that enables women and their families to receive SMS and voice messages in their own language offering relevant and timely information throughout pregnancy and the first year after birth.”
Frankly, ownership of simple ICT tools such as cell phones is essential to women’s empowerment not only in Zimbabwe, but in most countries in southern Africa and other parts of the continent; therefore, policy decision makers and regulators in the region should ensure that girls and women, as well as boys and men, at all social levels and in all countries, can access and use such simple technological tools.