Launch of the GSMA mWomen Program

Hillary Rodham Clinton
   Secretary of State
Melanne Verveer
   Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Cherie Blair and Rob Conway
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
October 7, 2010

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the State Department and to the launch of mWomen. mWomen is about bringing together women and mobile technology to advance gender equality and global development, and as a result of that marriage, a better world for all of us.

We are so pleased to have so many distinguished guests here with us this morning. Representatives of the private sector from all around the world, some 20 mobile communications companies from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to Mexico and Finland; NGOs who are using mobile technology to transform the lives of poor women, like Tostan from Senegal and SEWA in India; and colleagues from multilateral organizations; the governments of Liberia and Norway, and from across the United States Government – from Congress, from USAID, the White House, Treasury, and of course, all of our colleagues from the State Department.

Today, the United States is joining this global partnership, and there is no one more committed to this cause than the Secretary of State. Earlier this year, she outlined several key principles that should guide global development in this 21st century. Three of the guideposts she espoused come together in today’s announcement. She is a firm believer in the power of public-private partnerships to address our global challenges. For as long as I can remember, she’s been talking about the three legs of the stool: business, civil society, and government collaborating on solutions for greater effectiveness and sustainability.

She’s also been a strong proponent for the role of technology and innovation in development. In her words, there is no limit to the potential for technology to help us overcome obstacles to progress. And of course, she’s been a tireless, global champion for the empowerment of women. Her voice on the importance of investing in the potential of women to lift and lead their societies has echoed around the world.

So please join with me in welcoming the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Well, this is an exciting day for me personally and for the State Department, USAID, and the Obama Administration. And I am delighted to welcome all of you here to the Benjamin Franklin Room. I always like the idea that Franklin’s looking down at us from his perch over the fireplace, and since he was such a strong proponent of technology and actually got patents and led the way in other areas of advancing the ability for people to lead productive lives, I think it’s especially appropriate today. Because we are launching mWomen, an initiative aimed at solving an urgent problem that has gone unaddressed for too long – the global gender gap that prevents hundreds of millions of women from gaining access to mobile technology.

There are so many people in this room who I know and who I’ve either worked with or whose work I have admired, and I want particularly to thank Cherie Blair for joining us today. Her foundation has a mission close to my heart, supporting women entrepreneurs around the world. And thanks to the Cherie Blair Foundation, we now have a much more detailed picture of the degree to which mobile technologies have been adopted by women in developing countries, as well as the obstacles that prevent more women from using these tools.

I also want to thank Rob Conway and all the members of the GSM Association. The mobile industry is obviously an absolutely critical partner in this endeavor. They have the reach and the know-how to make mobile technology more available, more affordable, and better tailored to the particular needs and realities of women’s lives around the world. And they know better than anyone that the mobile gender gap represents not just a problem that needs solving, but an opportunity that needs seizing. So I applaud the members of the GSMA for showing strong leadership on this issue.

We’re also joined today by two women from an organization, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, that has transformed the lives of millions of women in India and beyond. I’ve worked with SEWA for many years, and I have seen firsthand how this organization gives women hope, confidence, and the tools they need to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Many members of SEWA have found that cell phones are now one of the critical tools that they can use. And I’m delighted that you will hear from my friend, Reema Nanavaty, and her colleague, Kapilaben Vankar, about their own personal experiences.

I also want to recognize Molly Melching, the executive director of Tostan in Senegal. I’ve worked with Molly also for many years as well as with Tostan. And she’ll be on a panel later that will talk in detail about how learning the way to operate a cell phone has become a very important way of teaching illiterate women their numbers and letters. And so it is not only a device, it is a door to greater education and information.

I am also pleased that Mary McDowell, the CEO of Nokia, is here. And I want to thank Melanne Verveer, who is our very first global ambassador on Women’s Affairs ever named by the United States Government, and Alec Ross, who is our leader on technology efforts and our commitment to what we call 21st century statecraft here at the State Department.

Now, we know that it goes without saying, it is so obvious, that mobile technology has reshaped the way that people work, learn, and communicate. And here at the State Department, it has also changed how we pursue our twin missions of diplomacy and development. We are using cell phones and mobile applications to help us coordinate disaster relief, track the results of our global health programs, engage directly with people whose contact with us would otherwise be only second- or third-hand, and advance our work around the world in dozens of other ways. And we know we are just scratching the surface.

But as excited as we are by how mobile technology can help us improve our work, we’re even more excited about how it can help you and millions of others around the world improve what you do and empower more people to become full participants in their own societies. Mobile technology can accelerate economic development. With a cell phone, a farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa can learn how to protect her crops from pests that would otherwise destroy a harvest. An entrepreneur in Latin America can more easily obtain a business license or communicate with a mentor or a customer. A woman in Asia can use her mobile banking to control her family finances or budget for school fees or save for a new house.

And we also know that mobile technology can improve governance and strengthen democratic institutions. For example, in the recent voting on a constitution in Kenya, where previous elections had led to violence, peace was maintained, thanks in part to technology that tallied ballots in real-time. Mobile technology fosters health and education, especially in places where systems do not yet exist. With cell phones, expectant mothers who live nowhere near a clinic can still receive prenatal health tips. Students whose teachers rarely show up at school can still move ahead with their lessons.

There is a hunger for programs like this. In Bangladesh, more than 300,000 people have taken advantage of a new program that teaches English via cell phone. So we at the State Department and at USAID are increasing our support for mobile initiatives that can directly benefit people’s lives, for example, by helping to organize a mobile money and financial inclusion conference in Kenya next month, by incorporating mobile money efforts into our Pathways to Prosperity Initiative, which supports women entrepreneurs in Latin America.

And we are developing an innovative program that addresses the particular needs of women. For example, we are in the early stages of developing an idea we are calling Mobile Justice to help women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sexual violence against women occurs at a horrific rate. In many parts of that country the police and court systems have disintegrated, so women who are attacked have no way to get justice. They can’t even realistically travel to the urban centers where courts have been reestablished. But these cell phones give women the ability to collect evidence and record and transmit their testimony, so women in rural areas may be able to bring justice to them.

Or to give another example, we recently held a contest called Apps 4 Africa to reward local mobile developers in four African countries whose apps are helping to advance prosperity and stability in ingenious ways. One of the winners is a program called Mamakiba, a budgeting app that helps low-income pregnant women save and prepay for prenatal care and the costs of delivery. By helping women manage the cost of this care, we can increase the chance that they will receive care and protect both their health and the health of newborns.

Now, we know that mobile technology is no silver bullet. There’s little use in saving money for prenatal care if there are no health workers nearby to deliver it. And there is no digital substitute for a fair justice system or a skilled and dedicated teacher. But there is no question either that the spread of cell phones has launched a new era of possibility in the fights against poverty, disease, hunger, corruption, and political oppression. Recently in Syria, young people whose teachers were physically abusing them began to record that abuse on their cell phones, and then when they uploaded it to YouTube, the government had to pay attention. So hundreds of teachers were transferred out of classrooms.

So we want to work with the mobile communication industry to think of more ways to amplify the effects we know already and to come up with the new ones that we believe are just around the corner. I personally believe that using cell phones and other technology can dramatically reduce corruption. And if we can make it possible on your cell phone to apply for and get a business license without having to go through five hands, all of which are outstretched, that cuts the cost of doing business.

But of course, to have a wide impact, the technology must be widely available, and for 300 million women in low- and middle-income countries the technology is still out of reach. It’s not simply because it’s too expensive, because many of these women’s husbands and their sons have cell phones, but it’s because of an array of economic and social barriers, from a lack of literacy to a lack of income to the all-too-common belief that cell phones afford more freedom to women than they deserve.

So we’re called to close the mobile gender gap because of our commitment to fairness and because of our commitment to progress. I’ve said it so many times that some of you, I’m sure, are able to recite it by heart, but investing in women is an investment in families, communities, and countries. Investing in women’s progress is the most direct and effective way to invest in progress economically and socially globally.

But beyond the personal applications, we know that there is much we can do if we change laws in countries, if we create the infrastructure that’s needed, if we create the markets that are required, and we are hoping that you will help us do that.

So I want to applaud the mWomen initiative for recognizing the importance of this cross-cutting issue and to convey the strong support of the State Department and USAID as you pursue your goal of reducing by 50 percent the gender gap in the next three years. Several mobile networks in developing countries, including Vodaphone, Telefonica, Roshan, and Mobitel, have pledged significant support for increasing women’s access, for example, by developing apps designed for women and training programs as well. We cannot do this without private sector leadership, and we applaud all of the companies that have already stepped forward and ask others to join us in this effort. We’re working with governments and international organizations. My friend, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf from Liberia and a global champion for mWomen, has sent her minister of Gender Equality and Development, Minister Gayflor, to join us here today to discuss how Liberia and the United States can work together. USAID has committed to partner with GSMA and the Gates Foundation through existing mobile initiatives on health, education, and agriculture. And additionally, the United States will continue to support civil society organizations that advocate for women’s rights to undo constrictions on their ability to use technology freely. We really are believers in the freedom to connect. So today’s launch of the mWomen Initiative is another big step on the road to gender equality, the freedom to connect, and all the opportunities that flow from it.

I am delighted now to introduce a friend, someone who I admire greatly and have a great affection for as well who has been a real leader on issues that are near and dear to my heart and is making a real mark on her own and through her foundation. Please welcome Cherie Blair. (Applause.)

MS. BLAIR: Well, follow that. (Laughter.) Can I say, Madam Secretary – I love saying that – and also, of course, my dear friend Hillary, how, as always, you’re so inspiring? You and I have shared many platforms in the past, but I think this one is going to have the greatest global impact, not least because of the State Department putting its massive force behind this launch. So thank you for doing that.

I also want to thank as well the GSMA who have been extraordinary supporters of our research on the mobile technology gender gap. And now, having commissioned that research jointly with my foundation, are now absolutely determined to lead the efforts to close it. We were drawn together by that shared instinct that too many women were missing out on the opportunities that mobile phones provided. And we know that we have an unprecedented mobile revolution. It affects my life, it affects everybody’s in this room’s life, extending and improving the way we connect with each other.

But in fact, this is a phenomenon even more evident in the developing world. Africa, for example, has the fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world with 20 percent growth in just 2009 alone. It’s estimated that there are close to 500 million African subscribers in a continent of 1 billion people. But just as numbers have expanded, so has their importance. They are now an indispensible, personal, economic development tool. Having access to a mobile phone bolsters personal security. It enables small businesses to prosper. It increases incomes. And it makes it easier to access banking services and credit.

And women, as the joint research sponsored by the GSMA and my own foundation highlighted, particularly feel the benefits. Over nine out of ten women who were surveyed felt safer because of their mobile phone. Eighty-five percent felt more independent. And over 55 percent of business owners reported that because of their mobile phone, they had earned additional income. And because the empowerment of women is so critical to the strength of our societies, the potential impact of this army of women is huge.

That was why there was so much concern when the report found that there were 300 million fewer female subscribers across the world than men. It underlined how women were missing out on the mobile revolution, stopping millions of women lifting their families out of poverty and disadvantage. So together, we identified the scale, the cause, and the impact of the gender gap. And now, GSMA is leading the effort to close it.

Fortunately, there’s an incentive for the private sector to lend their support because there’s a $13 billion revenue opportunity for mobile operators. No one is going to ignore that. We must work across all sectors to reduce barriers to mobile ownerships such as high handset costs, cultural prejudices, which Hillary touched on, and of course, the fear of technology, particularly among older women. We don’t want to duplicate or design, when we design solutions; we want to integrate a gender-focused approach building on the good work that’s already happening.

For example, in the mHealth Alliance, in the Apps 4 Africa program of the State Department, which yesterday announced the winner of that project, and of course, the work of the numerous fantastic NGOs in the room here today, as well as governments working to improve the regulatory framework to allow this progress to happen. My foundation pledges its own support in the form of a three-year program focused on harnessing the benefits of mobile technology specifically for women entrepreneurs.

We are also fortunate that this program benefits from the support of some wonderful women across the world – Helen Clark, the administrator of UNDP; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; and of course, most importantly, because without her we wouldn’t be here at all, the wonderful Melanne Verveer. (Applause.) I tell you, she really deserves that, as do all the supporters here in this room.

So let me now hand over to a man who understands why it’s so important that we empower women, Rob Conway of the GSMA, who will tell you a bit more about the program. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. CONWAY: Why is it that 300 million women around the world lack the mobile phone that men have? We must change that, shouldn’t we? Instead of marginalizing women, mobile is empowering. It is the great leveler of access and enabler of opportunities. Vital information is literally at their fingertips.

Consider that children die because mothers lack the very basics of maternal care. Mobile could change that. A simple illness for her child could be growing into a calamity because basic medical information is out of reach. Mobile could change that. A family may depend on her to manage their precious finances. Mobile could make her task more secure and significantly more cost effective, thereby saving the precious money needed elsewhere. And that same mobile could enable her or her daughter to further their learning or pursue the once unthinkable opportunity of a small business; all this in the palm of her hand. The very microloan that could seed that business may come from that phone.

This is why I am terribly honored to join today with Secretary Clinton and Cherie Blair for the official launch of GSMA’s mWomen Program. This program represents an unprecedented global public-private partnership between the mobile industry and international development community. In the next three years, we want to crack the barriers to mobile access for the more than 150 million women who are deprived of mobile in developing countries.

And indeed, we have already secured the commitment from 20 leading mobile companies to support this program, operating in more than 115 developing countries. And we are working with the organizations across the entire mobile ecosystem to provide the technical assistance, value-added services and other resources to break down the barriers that have held these women back. We want mobile to positively transform the lives of these women forever. Thank you. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, Rob Conway. And now I want you to hear from two women who really exemplify why we are all enthusiastic about this and the opportunity that this public-private partnership represents. First, Reema, if you will come forward and say a few words and then please introduce Kapilaben as well. (Applause.)

MS. NANAVATY: Namaste and thank you very much and I would really like to thank Secretary Clinton and Melanne Verveer, Cherie Blair, and also Robert Conway. I’ll be very brief, because it’s time for Kapilaben to really share her own experience. But from our similar experience, we feel that mobile phones are one more tool of organizing and connecting women across work and across the world. Connected, women gain more strength, and I think it’s one of – we, from our experience, feel that having cell phones is one of the ways of fighting and moving out of poverty. Disconnected, we will always stay behind. So time for Kapilaben to share her own experience. (Applause.)

MS. VANKAR: Namaste. (Via interpreter.) I’m Kapilaben and I, myself, am a small farmer and I have been with SEWA now for almost 18 years and have been elected by my 1.5 million members to represent on the executive committee of SEWA. Sharing my experience, I had never even seen a cell phone myself in my own hand or had ever used it. But I took a loan of 3,000 rupees from my local association and got a cell phone.

I’m a small farmer and I cultivate lily flowers. And every morning I have to pick the flowers and go and sell it in the market. And earlier I had to move from market to market from one trader to the other. And I used to spend the entire day in finding a proper market. But now I use my cell phone. I call up the different markets as while I’m plucking the lily flowers, and by nine in the morning, my flowers reach the market. It saves me enough tremendous time and also money. So I earn almost 1,500 to 2,000 rupees as an additional income, which I used to diversify and set up a small little food security-related enterprise.

So I now use my cell phone to source the food grains from the neighboring villages from the small farmers, and I sell it back to my sisters in the villages. So now I have two enterprises which I use – I do using my cell phone. And the third advantage, she says, is that when my sisters are ill and they have to immediately contact the hospitals, I use the cell phone for that and they have the benefit of the insurance as well.

In the end, I just want to say that it is my dream that in the coming three years, all my 1.5 million sisters have cell phones, because it is a powerful tool for sisters like us to get connected, become more and more economically secured, and also, we will be able to fight out poverty. Thank you. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, if you weren’t convinced before, I’m sure you are now, because I want to thank our friends and especially SEWA, which has been on the real frontlines of empowering women and is now taking a lot of their lessons learned and exporting them, and as you heard them say, there really are a hundred – 1.5 million members of SEWA. They vote for their leaders and they make decisions that benefit all of the members while supporting each other.

I am delighted that this day has finally come. We’ve looked forward to it. I know there’s more to be discussed in the rest of the program, but again, I thank you for being here and I thank you for being committed to this exciting new venture. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2010/1435