Game-Changing Innovations Advancing Gender Equity
By Jeni Klugman

Identifying game-changing innovations that advance gender equity is hard, at least as hard as other core development challenges that have persisted despite the best of well-intentioned efforts. The challenges are hardest where underlying discrimination is deep, and when gender inequality is overlaid with disparities in income, class and ethnic and group-based inequalities. 

For example, access to cellphones offer the prospect of major inroads on gender inequality, improving both economic and social outcomes for users. Mobile technology helps producers and consumers access the best price for their products, and it connects workers to job opportunities and labor markets. Around the world, behavioral messaging through SMS and voice calls have improved behavior in domains ranging from finance and education, to healthcare. Many would argue that mobile technologies are crucial to participation in the modern economy and promote the reach and impact of potentially game changing initiatives.

Yet globally, there is a global gender gap in cellphone access – as shown in the figure below.

Gender gaps in cell phone access, by region

In India, far fewer women have access to mobile phones then men – fewer than two in five compared to more than seven out of ten men.  A recent E-POD paper casts important light on understanding why women in India aren’t engaging with mobile technology and how to reverse this trend. The research uses a range of sources — including qualitative interviews and analysis of secondary quantitative data — to find that gender norms were the major barrier to use, as important as income. Interviews underlined that women’s cell phone usage challenges traditional gender norms, including that girls should be “pure” prior to marriage and that a married woman’s primary responsibility is to take care of her family and household. 

When economies are characterized with very extensive legal barriers to women– like married women not being able to get an ID card in the same way as married men, which is the case in eleven countries, and in Chad, Guinea-Bissau and Niger, where married women require their husband’s permission to open a bank account – the need for legal reform is obvious.  

 As documented in the recent High Level Group report on Justice for Women, available here in English and Spanish, laws guaranteeing gender equality provide an important signal, and reference point for advocates and groups seeking assurance of their rights.  

But even lawyers recognize that laws alone are clearly not enough. Addressing pernicious challenges – like gender norms which condone violence against women in the home – require multipronged approaches. Legal reform can play an important role – in multi-variate ecological analysis we found that having a law against violence was associated with significantly lower levels of violence, controlling for a range of other factors that are expected to play a role, like the level of women’s education. Even more promising are programs which work with women and men at the community level to address gender norms. Working over two years, SASA! in Uganda brought major changes in attitudes which condone violence, and reduced the likelihood of violence. The SASA! type model is now being tried in around 20 countries around the world, with many watching to see whether the same gains can be achieved elsewhere.  

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