This article is part of an online debate series on mobile health by the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, Johnson & Johnson, the mHealth Alliance, Impatient Optimists and Forbes.com.
This debate series will set the stage for a larger discussion at next week’s Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The proliferation of mobile phones in low- and middle-income countries over the past decade has been rapid and remarkable. This boom in mobile technology offers an incredible opportunity to provide historically marginalized groups, such as girls and women, with increased access to information and education to improve their health and wellbeing.
In a study conducted by the GSM Association, an association of mobile operators and related companies of the GSM mobile telephone system, 84% of women said they wanted better health care-related information. However, access to this information is often limited by logistical and geographic barriers. Girls and women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to affordable and safe health care services and comprehensive information and education and face serious discrimination and barriers to accessing to life-saving contraceptives and health care services.
According to the same study by GSMA, 39% of women interviewed expressed an interest in receiving health information through their mobile phones. The speed and remote abilities of telecommunications can help connect many women to health care services and facilities. Low- and middle-income countries accounted for more than 80% of the 660 million new mobile-cellular subscriptions added in 2011, with more than 1 billion subscriptions belonging to women. This is a tremendous opportunity that cannot be missed to improve quality of care by connecting clients with heath care providers, streamlining data collection, providing diagnostic treatment and support, sharing maternal health information, and facilitating health care worker capacity building and communication.
“The demand for mobile phones among women in low- and middle-income countries is great, and we must seize the opportunity to use new technologies to transform women’s lives in meaningful and lasting ways.”
Early lessons from CARE’s Integrated Family Health Initiative (IFHI) in Bihar, India indicate that front line health workers face a number of barriers to delivering services effectively, including a lack of knowledge and training, and a perceived ‘low status’ of health workers. By developing and introducing a suite of applications for frontline health workers – including job aids, algorithms and clinical protocols, and tools such as home visit planners and organizers – the initiative helps to build the capacity of health workers, raise their perceived ‘status’, and empower them to deliver high-quality and timely services. As one health worker put it, “I feel proud using this with women in my village. It increases my value in their eyes.”
The benefits of mobile technology reach far beyond the bounds of health in empowering women. For example, 41% of female mobile phone owners enjoy increased economic and professional opportunities due to owning a mobile, and 85% report feeling more independent because of their mobile phone.
However, we need to further understand both positive and negative unintended consequences of mHealth and eHealth interventions for women. Men as well as other members of the family and community leaders in mHealth projects need to be involved as part of the solutions since they are often key gatekeepers influencing women’s decisions and ability to access health services.
There is thus, a critical and urgent need to influence global, national and local policies that contribute to transforming gender issues. On May 28-30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, thousands of advocates for girls’ and women’s health and rights will come together at the 2013 Women Deliver conference. Women Deliver 2013 will be a critical moment to galvanize the global community to invest in mobile technology to empower women and improve their health and wellbeing – from implementing new social enterprise ideas to scaling-up existing successful projects.