LONDON — Maryam’s husband was so outraged when he discovered the device she had smuggled into their Kabul home that he beat her with his fists and a whip. The contraband was a cell phone.
“My husband’s family is very traditional,” says Maryam, a 24-year-old sheathed in a blue burqa who declines to give her last name. “They are very much against mobile phones and freedom for women.”
The connection Maryam sees between women and wireless is apparent to the world’s biggest telecommunications companies, which have begun a push to bring female customers in the developing world to the same level as men. The United States and Australian agencies for international development are backing the effort by Vodafone Group, France Telecom and others with $1 million to fund researc h into how to find and keep women like Maryam, and to persuade men that handsets aren’t a threat.
For women in emerging markets, cell phones can be life changing, offering banking services to free them from the dangers of carrying cash, texting when the communal water tap will open or sending instructions in prenatal care.
For the wireless industry, signing up 600 million female subscribers in the developing world by 2014 could be a revenue bonanza of $29 billion a year, according to the London-based GSMA, formed in 1982 as the Groupe Speciale Mobile to design a pan-European mobile technology.
“We are not ashamed to say that this will benefit business too,” says Trina DasGupta, director of the GSMA’s MWomen program, whose members include AT&T in the United States and Bharti Airtel in India.
The GSMA estimates that 38 percent of women, compared with 48 percent of men, have cell phones in the 149 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe that MWomen is targeting. A woman in those countries is 21 percent less likely than a man to have a handset, according to a February 2010 report by the GSMA and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
In what the report called “gender gap hot spots,” the disparity is greater, and the widest is in South Asia, which includes Afghanistan, India and Nepal. There, a woman is 37 percent less like likely to be a wireless customer, the report said, and closing that gap would generate close to $4 billion in revenue for telecommunications companies.
The U.S. is helping fund MWomen to bring women’s handset use on par with men’s and change “the all-too-common belief that cell phones afford more freedom to women than they deserve,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an Oct. 7 press conference.
Companies have made inroads. Afghanistan’s biggest wireless provider, Telecom Development Company Afghanistan, started a campaign called Aali for Mother (Aali means “the best”) with ads portraying men as gift bearers and the phones as tools that benefit the family. After the ads appeared, women grew to 23 percent from 18 percent of all new customers, according to the company, which ope rates under the name Roshan.
In Qatar, where it’s often taboo for females to interact with strangers of the opposite sex, Vodafone created Al Johara so women could sign up for service without having to enter stores. It’s an all-female sales force that does business in living rooms and kitchens, carrying paperwork in red suitcases.
Women using wireless phones aren’t viewed with as much suspicion in Kenya. Still, just 34 percent of women have handsets, versus 44 percent of men, according to the GSMA.
A cell phone’s importance can’t be overstated, says Salome Mukuhi Kamau, who sells mangos, papaya and peppers along a road near Nairobi. She says the device may have saved her life.
When she carried cash, she was robbed three times by thieves who threatened her with knives and guns. Now she deposits daily earnings with an agent from Nairobi-based Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money system, who works out of a shack across the street from her stand. When she has to stock up on goods, she takes the bus to the main market about three miles away, and gets the funds she needs from an M-Pesa agent there.
“I store the money here and then withdraw it when I want,” Salome, a single mother of two, says of her cell phone as Swahili gospel music swirls around her wooden stand. “There is no fear that I will be hijacked.”
Women can pay utility bills and school fees through M-Pesa and transfer money to distant family members. In Nairobi, the Freedom from Fistula Foundation, started by Ann Gloag, co- founder of the Perth, Scotland-based bus company Stagecoach Group, uses the service to provide free treatment at Jamaa Mission Hospital; it transfers travel money via M-Pesa to women who need operations to repa ir injuries caused during childbirth.
In 2008, Roshan, controlled by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, started M-Paisa, based on Vodafone technology. While women are eager to use it, the company has to find a way around men’s apprehension, says Aleeda Fazal, a mobile money specialist who helped establish M-Pesa and M-Paisa.
“In the Afghan woman’s mind, mobile phone technology helps her to keep in touch with friends and can help her be entrepreneurial,” Fazal says. “In the Afghan man’s mind, the technology means he loses control of the woman.”
She says Afghan women would tell men they weren’t interested in M-Paisa, because that’s what they thought men wanted them to say. “The story I would get from the women was completely different,” she says. “They were often saying, ‘Please, find a way to help us be a part of this.”’
Nine out of 10 women in emerging markets feel safer having a cell phone, a survey last year by Blair’s foundation and the GSMA found, and 41 percent of women said the devices had helped boost incomes.
“Putting a mobile phone in the hands of women is critical for the development of Afghanistan,” says Roshan CEO Karim Khoja. “We see the mobile phone as much more than a communication device.”
With MWomen, the GSMA can harness the ideas of its members and the non-profits that participate, says Lee Epting, the content services director for London-based Vodafone. They include Blair’s group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“It will take more than a single technology provider to close the gender gap,” Epting says. “Often a phone is seen as a tool for freedom, and men in some cultures might not want women to have that freedom. You need a forward looking man to help make those changes happen.”
Maryam, who has a 1-year-old son, says the man she married two years ago isn’t one of them. The handset that aroused his anger was a gift from her brother, she says, and without it she can’t easily communicate with her siblings and parents, who live north of Kabul.
For women, “using a cell phone in Afghanistan is quite difficult,” she says. She won’t try it again, she says. “My husband said he would divorce me.”
Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul and Sarah McGregor in Nairobi assisted with this report.