Drawing on Gram Vaani’s experiences, Vani Viswanathan suggests asking a few basic questions to ensure that your ICT for Development project listens to, and accurately represents, women’s voices.
“What do I need a phone for? If I ever need to talk to someone, I ask my son and he helps me…” a woman in her 50s, from the Nalanda district in Bihar, India.
Mobile phones (and smartphones and related applications) have formed the dominant discourse in development over the last decade, and for the right reasons. At Gram Vaani, we have developed Mobile Vaani and other solutions that tap into the power of mobile phones to provide people access to information and learning, to share and listen to perspectives on a wide range of topics, and to strengthen people’s ability to demand accountability from the State. Indeed, mobile phones are considered an important tool to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
In this well-intentioned euphoria, though, those of us working on the use of mobile phones for development, must pause to ask whom we reach when we plan, implement and monitor/ evaluate our mobile-based solutions. Whose voices are we hearing when we conduct our base studies, develop programmes and solutions or monitor and evaluate these? Embedded within any community are power structures that affect people’s ability to access or use any resource. These power structures straddle diverse genders, caste, class, religion, race and more, but one pervasive structure across the world is gender, specifically women.
A significant reason why fostering technology adoption among women users is hard is simply poor access to mobile phones, due to reasons ranging from a lack of financial resources to patriarchal cultures that consider mobile phones as a “bad influence” on women, and don’t trust them with its use. Women often share mobile phones with family members, or even if they have their own phone, male family members monitor whom the woman calls, messages or what apps she uses. These factors limit women’s ability to learn the variety of benefits of mobile phones, be comfortable using them, or even more fundamentally, be convinced that they, as women, have as much right to use mobile phones as men do— something that the woman quoted at the beginning of this piece conveys!
This puts a lot of responsibility in our hands as organisations using ICTs for development; we must be aware that developing technological solutions with good intentions isn’t sufficient to encourage their uptake among all sections of society, especially women. And among women, too, factors such as age, race, caste location, and whether they live in urban or rural areas influence their ability to access technology solutions.
At Mobile Vaani, we’ve attempted to bring more women into our digital media platforms that help inform and connect people. We have been successful in some cases, but in others our attempts only bring about minimal engagement from women. Based on our ten years of experience and learnings, here are some questions that can help us increase women’s adoption of a mobile phone solution:
Are there other positive social trends that can help?
As more families give importance to women’s education, we found that speaking with young women in colleges about Mobile Vaani helped them understand how the platform worked, and how it could help them (and their families). They also got the language required to convince their families about using a mobile phone.
Are there community role models we can work with? Neha Bhatt became our youngest reporter in Jharkhand at the age of 16, after persuading her father, himself a community reporter with us, to buy her a mobile phone so she could listen and contribute to Mobile Vaani.
Do women know how to use the phones?
Access to technology is one thing; knowing to use it is another. We’ve seen older women, especially, face this issue. In such instances, training women on basic phone functions – dialling numbers, sending or reading messages, using the camera, etc.—becomes imperative. To promote our JEEViKA Mobile Vaani and in our project Meri Awaaz Meri Pehchan, for example, we took the help of women’s Self-Help Groups and female volunteers to get women acquainted with and confident about using the phone, and later, our solution.
Who is the content for?
Content is closely connected to issues of access and use. Some projects might benefit from content written exclusively for women, as it creates a trusted network where women feel safe sharing their experiences. Others might work well with content and programmes that include men, contributing to broader change. The latter builds trust among men and prevents them from barring women’s access to the content, but also chips away at the idea that “these are women’s issues” or “we don’t want to be involved in something that includes women.”
For instance, content on maternal health and nutrition in our JEEViKA Mobile Vaani, tailored for women, was heard by men too, who told us that they had never, until then, bothered about what their wives ate, but now wanted to change that.
As we step into a new decade, we must, more than ever, question the common belief that technology, as an extension of science, is inherently neutral and free of biases of society. The position, power, and beliefs of those who develop any technology will inevitably flow into the technology itself, and this is certainly the case with mobile phones and their various applications. Being aware of and acknowledging the gaps in terms of whom we’re reaching and whose voices we’re hearing will help us seek solutions; not doing so will unfortunately only perpetuate inequities without challenging status quo.