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4 Ways to Properly Include Women in Your mHealth Initiative

By Guest Writer on September 1, 2014

Social norms and stigmas often lead to men owning mobile phones more often than women in many parts of the developing world. Sometimes when a woman does happen to acquire a phone, she even faces threats of violence because of her ownership. These unfortunate findings show that gender is one of the biggest issues in mHealth and ICT for Development in general. Unfortunately, according to a 2013 literature review, there has not been substantial research about gender relations in mHealth interventions.

My name is Jack O’Rourke and I am a student at Fordham University. I recently traveled to Uganda to conduct research on the following question: how are mHealth groups addressing various socio-economic issues that come with female usage of mobile phones? My resulting research paper helps answer this question, adequately titled “Grappling with Gatekeepers: Addressing Gender Hindrances to mHealth.”

What were the results that I found?

The qualitative approach undergone was two-pronged. After discussing attitudes surrounding female usage of mobile phones with groups of men and women in rural Uganda, I was able to take what I’ve learned and question three mHealth representatives from four organizations (mTrac, U-Report, Text to Change and Health Child). Some of the women’s experiences were tragic. From women being abused by their husbands for the ‘wrong use’ of their phone to not being able to pay for airtime, the problems some of the women faced in Uganda were immense.

Using Deshmukh and Mechael’s 2013 Gendered Framework for mHealth, I was able to analyze the various approaches these mHealth groups were taking to incorporate women into their programs. While the mHealth groups analyzed did a good job on large-scale issues such as the inclusion of women in policy making and the inclusion of men in their programs, gaps still did remain. Some of the approaches came up short in dealing with micro, cultural issues. For example, the use of a male voice for voice messages and late afternoon messaging could strain gender relations in a household.

Deshmukh and Mechael’s Framework

Deshmukh and Mechael’s Framework

What should be done?

The following recommendations detail what mHealth groups should take into consideration when including women in future initiatives:

1)   Follow the framework set out by Deshmukh and Mechael.

2)   Get on the ground early in order to understand the specific issues pertinent to the community targeted.

3)   Understand the critical issues set out by Deshmukh and Mechael (GBV, engagement of gatekeepers, social/cultural values), but make sure to not ignore the intricacies of certain cultural issues. For example, voice technology can be used to avoid the pitfalls of illiteracy, but a male voice received by a female could cause misunderstandings between a husband and wife.

4)   Collaboration is key. Working together and not treating other mHealth groups as competitors will not only help empower women, it will save time and, in turn, money.

Following these recommendations and creating mHealth initiatives that are sensitive to gender issues should be a priority for all organizations operating in developing countries. And while the issue appears daunting, the past innovation shown by mHealth groups should give hope that the field will be able to deal with one of its greatest challenges.

Jack O’Rourke is an undergraduate student at Fordham University in New York. His twitter handle is @jackorourke.

Filed Under: Economic Development, Healthcare, Technology, Women in Tech
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