Mar 092010

Cherie Blair and MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski tackle how technology can change women’s lives at Women in The World on Saturday. Read about how innovations like text messaging, mobile video, and birthing kits are part of the solution.

Poverty and disease, inequality and violence—there’s no app for that. The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world.

In most cases, it’s not cool social-media widgets or super-wired gadgets that are making a difference. Much of the social change being driven by technology involves local innovation, local investment, and local custom. Technology that can be sustained at the country or regional level and through public-private partnerships—without massive international aid—is the kind that often brings the most lasting change. Often, this kind of transformation entails looking past the established solutions of the developed world and adopting canny new technological shortcuts. Examples include bypassing the expensive prospect of installing large-scale water-filtration and distribution systems in favor of inexpensive and easy-to-distribute kits that allow women to filter and desalinate local water at home—or using e-learning systems to train rural nurses in the field, rather than requiring them to physically attend classes in cities.

Article - Women in the World Logo The 10 technologies we’re highlighting are emblematic of the reach of technology into the lives of women in the developing world. Yet none is a panacea; in many cases, political change lags. Poverty is a massive problem with both global and regional causes. Yet the more new technology puts the tools of change into local hands, the more able we are to move from a model of unsustainable basic humanitarian aid to more sustainable markets and networked communities. This isn’t about a sudden flash of modernization or getting remote villages to tweet when they don’t even have enough to eat—it’s about advances that improve the daily lives of women on every continent, bit by bit.

Article - Watson WiW Tech Empowers - 1. Video Everywhere /Burhan Ozbilici / AP Photo 1. Video Everywhere

Ubiquitous and inexpensive videocameras, via cellphones or lightweight portable units like the Flip, are powering social movements and political change. From the horrific images of systematic rape in Guinea last fall to the death of female protesters during the political upheaval in Iran this year, cheap and easily shareable video is changing the way we perceive conflict and human rights around the world. When every activist is also a video journalist connected to a worldwide network, the power equation changes—and we see that women are truly on the frontlines.

Article - Watson WiW Tech Empowers - 2. Clean Cooking Hussein Malla / AP Photo 2. Clean Cooking

Better cooking technology promises cleaner air, a drop in smoke-related disease rates and, finally, more time for women to build independent lives. In essence, changing the way women in the developing world prepare meals could usher in the same kind of modernization that (gradually) empowered women in the industrial world a century ago.

A low-tech solution with huge potential impact is the distribution of compact, well-designed cooking devices—stoves—to women in the developing world who traditionally cook over smoky, choking open fires. The Rocket Stove is a design developed by the Aprovecho Research Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit working on heating and cooking solutions for the developing world. Aprovecho has provided stoves in Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippines with the overall goal of improving the health of the estimated 2 to 3 billion people who cook their food over open biomass fires. An added bonus: a big decline in greenhouse gasses.

Article - Watson WiW Tech Empowers - birthing kits Courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 3. Birthing Kits

Soap. A plastic sheet. A new razor blade. Some string. As low-tech as you can get, but each of the many thousands of 25-cent birthing kits distributed through health and relief organizations can save a life, according to research supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to PATH, an international nonprofit that has distributed these simple kits in countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, and Nepal, infection is a leading cause of death for some 1,600 women each day from complications associated with childbirth. Nearly 1 million newborns die each year of infection. With 57 million women giving birth each year without trained health-care assistance, birthing kits pack a huge potential impact.

Article - Watson WiW Tech Empowers - 4. Electronic Election Monitoring Dario Lopez-Mills / AP Photo 4. Electronic Election Monitoring

In countries like Lebanon, where women led the original outcry against landmines and human-rights violations, volunteers are using new digital technologies to monitor elections and open up the political process. During last year’s elections, a group of volunteers launched the Sharek961 project, using technologies like Ushahidi, an open-source project based in Africa (it means “testimony” in Swahili) that allows users to crowd-source crisis information via mobile phones. They also relied on the nonprofit Frontline SMS text-message application to report abuse and irregularities in campaigning and at the polls.

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