Penicillin, the forerunner of modern medicine, was discovered by accident when Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming mistakenly left out a lab culture during vacation. Upon his return, he found a strange fungus had killed off all of the bacteria, and penicillin was born.
Like penicillin, many of the world’s most important discoveries have in fact been side effects of other innovations. Mobile phones, for example, were initially intended to bring improvements in communications, but have become an important tool for financial inclusion. Mobile money, too, has proven to have many benefits beyond those traditionally cited by development workers.
Though not without skeptics, mobile money has been hailed for its role in fostering financial inclusion among the poor and unbanked, as well as championed for bringing organizational cost and time savings, increasing financial transparency, and reducing security risks for staff and clients.
Less commonly discussed are the broader, positive “side” effects that mobile money has had for women. In Bangladesh, where there is a wide gender gap in digital finance, early evidence from the BRAC Innovation Fund for Mobile Money has shown that mobile money can yield surprising benefits for BRAC clients, including poor, rural women and adolescent girls.
Here, we illustrate four important side effects of mobile money related to women + girls:
Side Effect #1: Mobile money 101 taught some how to make calls for the first time
Introducing mobile money to communities in hard-to-reach chars, or river islands, was no simple feat. Most women were unfamiliar with mobile money, fairly illiterate and unable to use mobile phones. Using slate and chalk, BRAC staff taught these women the basics required to use the technology: reading English numbers, navigating the mobile money menu, and completing transactions.
They did not anticipate, however, that these skills would have important applications beyond mobile money. Now that women are familiar with the phone keypad and able to read the numbers, many women are now using their phones for other purposes: from making calls to topping up their mobile accounts. We heard from one client who surprised her husband by calling him for the first time.
Side Effect #2: Introducing mobile money to adolescent girls created demand for phones
In rural areas of Bangladesh, very few girls under the age of 16 have their own mobile phone. A recent study by The Girl Effect showed that parents are the largest barrier to mobile ownership, with one parent saying: “Girls don’t need a phone before marriage, but they might ask their father or husband for one.”
A mobile savings pilot targeting adolescent girls showed that mobile money can (indirectly) change this trend. Since the pilot launch, BRAC’s field staff have observed an uptick in demand for mobile phones among members of adolescent clubs. Some girls are even using their mobile savings to purchase their own mobile devices.
Owning a phone can empower girls in many ways. We see some girls are now using their phones to access the Internet, through which they can contact friends or access valuable information privately.
In one case, a group of girls learned via Facebook on their phones that their teacher had suffered from an accident, and they were able to quickly gather friends and family to visit the teacher. Another young girl used her mobile to find out about BRAC services, and others are using the mobile web to supplement their educational materials.
Side Effect #3: Mastering mobile money can increase confidence and even social status
As mentioned earlier, many of the women we work with have only a rudimentary understanding of their mobile phone and very limited literacy. Maria May, Senior Programme Manager of the BRAC Social Innovation Lab, explains, “Many of our clients view mobile money as something that their husband will learn, or their children will learn, but they themselves will never know how to do. So when they are able to use it confidently, it’s an exciting accomplishment and a source of pride.”
One of the most common uses of mobile money is buying airtime, which is free. The alternative is to go to the market and buy a card (often at a markup). We met one woman who, having been taught by BRAC staff basic numeracy and mobile money, buys airtime for her neighbors. Maria said, “She offered to send me airtime, and I was amazed at how quickly she did the transaction. Then she told me she does it for most of the women in her village for free. I asked her, ‘why don’t you become an agent and make money for doing this?’ she laughed and said, ‘no, I’m just glad to be able to be able to do this for them.’“
In other villages where we work with adolescent girls, they often master the technology quickly. Consequently, others in the village want to learn from them or get help in transferring money. It’s exciting to see young women sought out as experts on a new technology.
Side Effect #4: Understanding mobile money may give women more power in household finances
When BRAC first starting teaching clients about mobile money, some reported that their husbands threatened them not to use it. “When you try to introduce technological changes in the community, it can cause a culture shock, particularly for the men in the community. In many villages, women traditionally do not handle money,” said Nur Siddique, Assistant Manager for BRAC’s Integrated Development Programme. Particularly in households where the husband cannot use mobile money himself, women learning how to use it may create tensions. “Using mobile money makes women feel more powerful,” adds Nur.
Despite this delicate gender dynamic, some women still chose to learn how to use mobile money. These women are now acting as catalysts of change within their communities, teaching others to use it as well. For some families, especially those where the husband has migrated for work, women report that it’s a big improvement over the old system of getting the money from the agent. The husband can send the money anytime and know that his wife gets it.
These stories, drawn from across the Innovation Fund pilots, show that mobile money does a lot more than it says on the packaging. While the direct benefits of mobile money are transformative on their own, the full impact is much broader. In particular, BRAC’s experience to date has revealed several indirect ways in which mobile money can impact the lives of women and girls.
Financial inclusion is an important goal, but we’d be wise to learn from history and keep an open mind about which problems mobile money is addressing. Deeper exploration on side effects might help us understand the ways in which mobile money can be transformative in the lives of women, both in Bangladesh and globally.
This article is published in collaboration with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Julienne Lauler is an intern with the BRAC Social Innovation Lab.
Image: A coordinator processes a smart card as she collects money from a woman. INDIA-BANK/ REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui.