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Mobile Phones: The new vox pop


This is one of a series of articles being published by LAB partner CAWN (Central America Women’s Network). The series introduction states: “The women’s movement has been historically critical of mass media, blaming it for  reinforcing discrimination against women in society and gender stereotypes. This series of articles aims to highlight how alternative media can be used to provide a space for women’s voices, rights and empowerment in Central America while recognising the limits to accessing media and participating in producing media content that many women still face.”  Other articles in the series and a wealth of related material can be read on the excellent blog WomensRightsAndTheMedia.

The all-consuming desire for new technology in our increasingly connected society means that older, but still valuable technology such as mobile telephony, is sometimes overlooked when considering its benefit for development purposes. With 75% of the world’s population now having access to a mobile phone, the developing world has now overtaken the developed in having a higher number of mobile phone users. The lack of landlines makes mobile phones crucial to facilitate connectivity in rural and urban environments with text messages being the most popular method of communication due to its relatively lower cost. Many NGOs have seized this opportunity to reach vast swathes of the population in developing countries and have used mobile communications for education, health care, developing small businesses, for information gathering/sharing and democratic purposes.

In Mexico the company CitiVox has developed a data-driven, open-source platform which they hope will transform the democratic process in Mexico from the bottom up. The general public can report on issues ranging from traffic to the environment, and from public health to crime, through a variety of ways including SMS and mobile applications. This information is then stored and mapped in graphs and statistics which are visible to both citizens and government actors who can monitor these issues and effect solutions. CitiVox hope their technology will drive better policies for government, fostering higher civic engagement, government accountability and transparency.

Mother & newborn child in a Curamericas clinicGuatemala’s telecommunications sector is in the top four in Latin America according to Mario Marroquín Rivera, a consultant for Fundación2020, with mobile ownership being roughly equal between men and women. Mobile communications have been successfully utilised by organisations in Guatemala to aide and empower women. Curamericas Global have focussed on the municipality of Huehuetenango, also known as the “Triangle of Death” due to the high mortality rate for children under five years of age and mothers, as well as the harsh living conditions. Only 10% of births were attended by a medical professional before Curamericas Global began their programme which made use of mobile communications to set up “emergency response systems that link community members to the nearest health facility by a cell phone communication network and transportation plan” (McCormick 2013). The use of this strategy  resulted in a 15.7% increase in births with medical supervision in the first year of the project.

A second women-focussed Guatemalan initiative has been the use of mobile phones to facilitate small savings groups in communities with extremely low income. Trickle Up provides training and a grant to help women start small business and then encourages participants to form savings groups to protect against emergencies, but also to provide access to credit to continue to grow their businesses. Mobile phones are used in the groups for mobile banking, over-the-phone training and to monitor the process to improve its efficiency. The initiative has proved successful with one group based in Tamahu now having 3 members and savings of 13,500 quetzales (approximately  £1,046). Trickle Up have stated that “For women who had almost no social, political or economic capital before starting this group, the shift is enormous.”

Agrupación Ciudadana protestMobile communications have even been used to intervene and provide aide for politically controversial issues like abortion. In El Salvador abortion is completely illegal even in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger, making suicide the biggest cause of maternal death for adolescents in the country. The activist group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto El Salvador have recently developed a SMS reporting system to notify the organisation of women-at-risk of human rights violations related to the criminalisation of abortion. This will not only enable timely interventions but can also lead to the production of a database of vulnerable women, producing statistics of the number of women suffering from the loss of reproductive rights. With El Salvador having the largest number of mobile phones per person in Central America, with 6.6 million for a population of 5.8 million this system has the potential to protect a large percentage of the female population.

Despite the strong potential for successful development and activist initiatives using mobile phone technology there are some drawbacks. Mobile phones are still relatively expensive compared to income rates in Central America, meaning that some people are priced out of this useful communication tool. New systems to combat this and increase access have been developed such as groups who buy a mobile phone to share and small businesses have been created to rent out a mobile phone to members in a community when they need it. However, problems of access and dependence are still an issue as there remains a gender gap within mobile phone ownership in Central America, although it is less extreme than in other regions of the world. With more men owning a mobile phone and, in the average patriarchal family, having control over their female dependents access to it, this excludes women from controlling the economic and social opportunities opened up by mobile phone access. Furthermore, in cases of mobile phone alerts for domestic violence or health advice distribution, safety mechanisms and private issues can be seen on a shared phone potentially leading to dangerous consequences for the women involved.

Hackathon conference in El Salvador on Women & the Media. Photo: World BankThere are additional concerns that arise with the popularity of using “big data” in development. Due to heightened communications surveillance and poor data protection laws in developing countries mobile phone users could be at risk of governments having access to sensitive information, such as the reporting of corruption or political affiliations, and the means to monitor their whereabouts. This fear has been heightened by some governments planning to instigate mobile SIM registration laws. Open Democracy have reported a growing focus of development organisations on data transparency leading to an increased risk that personal data could be used for persecution rather than protection as it can be accessed by anyone for any reason and locations can be tracked. Even if the data is anonymised there are ways of cross-referencing it with other data to reveal identities, this could be potentially be dangerous for those using mobile communications for personal health issues or political activity.

With the high penetration of mobile technology in Central America and other developing regions, there is a wealth of possibility for further successful development and activist projects using mobile phones. However, the organisations need to remain aware of the potential for collateral damage and therefore to consider the various security procedures required within different contexts to maintain the information privacy of the vulnerable individuals their projects seek to help.

Louise Morris is a freelance journalist and broadcaster who works for CAWN producing media content and interviewing activists. She is also a LAB volunteer, a fundraiser for Sound Women and is currently studying for a Masters in Global Media and Postnational Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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