Revi Sterling, director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, says the gender digital divide is growing. Yet women are the key to successful digital development. We asked her to share best practices for using technology to reach and empower women. Here’s what she said.

The best practices for any development sector — women’s digital development or otherwise — is based on an understanding of the end user in the most holistic sense possible. Technologies need to be appropriate for all the constraints that women face, be it literacy, cost, safety, security, or relevance. More than that, the technology needs to fit a woman’s lifestyle. For example, setting up a mobile money program but having strangers as mobile money agents isn’t going to work. 

It’s important to know what a woman’s family and society will let her do or spend, or where they will allow her to go. Also, find out what her aspirations and information needs are. Only then can we start to address the gaps and create viable tech-based solutions. Here are some effective practices that everyone should be aware of.

1. Consider interactive methods

With illiterate populations and speakers of unwritten languages (languages without UNICODE support), it is critical to have voice- and symbol-based input systems. The human-computer interaction model is key, as is having the users help design the symbols. Pre-testing is essential. Remember, time is expressed differently in different cultures, as are directions and location. There is a good literature on alternative interfaces from Medhi et al and Dodson et al. Check out Vikalpdesign and Digital Empowerment Foundation. Also, don’t discount interactive voice and video platforms for reach and efficacy.

With low-literate populations, it's critical to have voice- and symbol-based interfaces.

The Talking Book’s symbol-based interface was designed with input from users in northern Ghana.

2. Bridge the connectivity gap with online/offline hybrids

Communities may be covered by 3G or better, but that’s no good if you can’t afford it. Smart offline/online hybrid applications can bridge the connectivity gap. I love programs like Digital Green, where people can download and share videos. Remember, not everything needs to be delivered in real-time — especially if the data is spam or incorrect. All it takes is one bad set of information to negatively affect women’s lives and livelihoods. People on the margins do not have a margin for bad or costly information. Good pre-processing of information saves time and money, and legitimizes the content.

3. Be creative with ownership and ICT options

There are different ways to get technology into people’s hands without incurring too much cost or risk of theft. Cost remains a huge factor for women. Be creative with rent-to-own or group ownership models for phones. Data costs remain out of reach for many, which opens up the need for community network providers who can undercut the big telecoms. Look at ICTs that are not phone-based. Talking Books are typically shared by communities or groups. Depending on the program design, a single device can be used to reach up to 100 listeners. Also, because it’s a dedicated device, the Talking Book doesn’t get stolen.

4. Set clear expectations for safety and success

Create training material! I think of Viamo’s 3-2-1 service that teaches people about the internet, email, search queries, social networks, as well as how to stay safe and avoid scams or harassment. Many women lack confidence to try a new app. Or they fear something bad will happen. These apprehensions are real. In the curriculum I’ve written, I stress that having the internet doesn’t mean you’ll get rich. More likely, you’ll fall victim to a get-rich-quick scheme, which I see with so many novice and aspirational users. We need to be very clear about what “digital” promises — and encourage safe and sound use.

5. Look at services for feature phones

Feature phones like flip phones are not going to be replaced by smartphones any time soon, no matter what the forecasts say. Stop waiting for smartphones to migrate into the hands of the poorest — it’s simply unethical at this point. Thank goodness there are amazing services that are starting to look at these less sophisticated phones, such as KaiOS options.

6. Partner with the power brokers

Millions of women cannot use technology due to cultural and social norms that keep them offline. So you need to work closely with those in power and create compelling usage scenarios for women. Use cases need to include a direct benefit at the household and community level. We have been extremely successful in working with husbands, fathers, religious leaders, parents, and in-laws, and employers, to find agreed-upon use scenarios.

7. Provide content by and for women

Create content by and for women. If there is no content of interest to women, find it or create it! Otherwise, there is no use case. When evaluating the Talking Book usage statistics for MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project, Amplio found that messages recorded by women health and agriculture experts performed better with women farmers.

8. Put women in leadership roles

Why shouldn’t every community network be run by women? WomenConnect has projects in four African countries where women have learned the essentials of networking and brought the internet to their communities. Women manage the network, fix the network, and serve as role models for everyone else. In each of these communities, the men are so happy to have internet access and enjoy the benefits that they accept women running the show.

Revi Sterling is director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge. A technology and gender specialist, Revi previously worked for Microsoft Research and served as Chief of Party for NetHope, a consortium of leading global nonprofits and technology companies. Revi has a Ph.D. in Media, Technology, and Society from University of Colorado Boulder, where she also was founding director of the nation’s first Information and Communication Technology for Development master’s program. She consults widely on using tech to empower women and girls.

 

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