Why Not Mobile Phones? How Talking Books Help Bridge the Gender Digital Divide
Updated: Nov 29
If development projects seek to reach more women with equal access to information, they need to look beyond mobile phones
It’s no secret that there’s a gender gap in access to digital information, but many people don’t realize the level of disparity. As international development projects increasingly turn to mobile phones and new digital technologies for program and service delivery, there’s a risk of creating new groups that are left behind, including women and girls.
Let’s take a look at a few of the stats from the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020 to size up the problem and understand the barriers:
One billion women do not use mobile internet.
165 million fewer women than men own a cell phone.
The divide is widest in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In GSMA’s report, women ranked their top barriers to mobile internet as literacy and digital skills, affordability, safety and security, relevance, and culture/family disapproval. Although access to the internet and other information and communication technologies is considered necessary to achieve the SDGs, including gender equality and women's empowerment, nearly half the world’s population remains offline.
To bridge the gender digital divide, we need to address the barriers.
How the Talking Books Overcomes Barriers
At Amplio, we get asked, “Why not mobile phones?” The reality is that, in last-mile communities, many women do not own mobile phones, use mobile internet, or have sufficient literacy or numeracy skills to access print or digital information. Happily, our technology is designed with the user to overcome common barriers.
Here’s how our technology supports women’s access to information:
Literacy and Digital Skills
The Talking Book's visual interface use icons instead of words or numbers. Equally important, audio prompts and messages are recorded in the user’s language. This means people of all ages, with low or zero literacy or numeracy skills, can easily use the device. Constance Teage, a land tenure specialist at Landesa, told us about a 90-year-old woman in Liberia who was able to operate a Talking Book independently after watching a short demonstration—much to the surprise of younger people in the room.
With the Talking Book, there’s no cost to the end-user. Talking Book devices are purchased and provided by development organizations and government agencies. Talking Books can be shared and rotated among households, played at community meetings, used by extension workers, or placed in classrooms and clinics. Depending on the program design, a single device can easily serve 100 listeners.
MEDA’s GROW project used Talking Books to empower women farmers in Northern Ghana.
Safety and Security
The Talking Book is a dedicated device. Unlike phones and radios, Talking Books don't get lost or stolen. You can’t go online, so there’s no way for someone to steal your identity or scam you. And while mobile phones often play a role in romantic and sexual relationships, there’s no risk of courtship or harassment with a Talking Book. A new Talking Book in development will provide enhanced data security.
With the Talking Book, you can deliver hours of targeted content in any language, with multiple topics and playlists. There are no ads or distractions. Users can listen to the Talking Book when and where it's convenient and replay messages to improve their learning and retention. Users can also record their feedback. Because Talking Books collect usage data and user feedback, you can monitor message engagement, identify issues and trends, and continually update your content for great impact. Our partners often describe the excitement of listeners when they hear the Talking Book “speak” their language. Listeners say that all of the content is relevant and useful.
Unlike mobile phones, the Talking Book is not a personal device. It is viewed as a shared community resource that provides useful information. A built-in speaker allows families and groups to listen and learn together, in public or in the privacy of their homes. Our partners work with local experts and communities stakeholders to ensure that content is culturally appropriate. Talking Books often include endorsement messages from local leaders and social influencers, which helps to build trust and engagement.
Access to knowledge can transform lives
The Amplio Talking Book is recognized by UNESCO as an inclusive digital solution that low-literate adults and youth can use to gain new skills and knowledge to improve their livelihoods and lives. Integrating Talking Books into a project can help engage and empower women and ensure their voices and perspectives are included.