Women and telephones: Bridging the gender digital divide using simple solutions

Women hold cellphones

In Niangoloko, in western Burkina Faso, a community listening group tunes in to weekly radio programs on sexual and reproductive health. It’s a group made up of men and women, but women interacted with the program differently from men for the first few months, for a simple reason. They faced difficulty calling in to the talk-back lines. 

During a recent evaluation for the AdoSanté project in the region, the Farm Radio International team visited the group. During our conversations with the group, our team asked questions about the difficulties people encountered in participating in the programs through our Uliza platform. 

Uliza is our suite of services that combines radio, mobile phones, and an Interactive Voice Response system that allow listeners to communicate and exchange information with their radio station quickly, easily and free of charge. 

The digital gender divide

One of the challenges that emerged was the participation of women at the beginning of the series. They told us that the women had difficulty catching the number and then typing it into keypad on their phone. Too often, the women we talked with didn’t know how to read, and therefore had difficulty mastering the keypad. 

For women in Burkina Faso the literacy rate is 26 per cent. In every project, it’s therefore especially important to address the challenges of women to be sure that they can benefit fully from each of our programs.

It’s also indicative of the larger “gender digital divide” that we sometimes encounter in rural communities: when it comes to having the access, training and skills to use digital tools and newer technology, women often lag behind.

Community solutions

So, we asked the women in the group: What has changed since the beginning of the program? 

They told us that the group leader, a man, had taken the initiative to write down the number to call the Uliza system on around 30 pieces of paper, numbered them from one to 30, and distributed them to members of the group and other women in the community. 

Woman holds up small piece of paper with phone number written on it
Abi Diallo holds up a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. Her community listening group leader, Adama Traoré wrote the numbers on a piece of paper and handed them out to women across the listening group and community to help them access the radio program’s interactive services.

The women then kept the pieces of paper in their wallets, and when the time came to participate in the programs, they looked at the shape of the numbers on the paper, and pressed the matching button on their phone. From that point on, they were able to dial the number of the radio station to participate. 

“This was a good lesson for me, because it’s one of the principal challenges for the participation of women in our programs,” says Alimata Konate, our regional coordinator for digital innovations. Before leaving Niangoloko, she worked with the group of women to make sure they were confident in the use of their phones. 

Bridging the digital divide

FRI’s Uliza system is a vital element in creating interactive radio. However, we have seen time and time again that its usage is lop-sided, with men participating much more than women.

While listening groups, which are common to all of our projects across sub-Saharan Africa, often help mediate these issues, with community members helping each other to access and interact programming, there’s still work to be done.

Making an extra effort to ensure women can access to systems like Uliza is a major preoccupation of our teams across projects in sub-Saharan Africa. If we want a variety of voices and opinions to be featured for millions over the radio, simple solutions like the one above will need to become the norm.

The AdoSante project, or Le projet de promotion de la santé, des droits sexuels et reproductifs et de la nutrition des adolescent(e)s au Burkina Faso is a three year project funded by Global Affairs Canada and led by Helen Keller International. It aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health and well-being of adolescents in Burkina Faso. Farm Radio International, with support from Helen Keller International and the other partners, is working with radio stations on radio programming that improves the knowledge of adolescents and their families and sparks dialogue on family planning, nutrition, and sexually transmitted infections across Burkina Faso through informative interactive radio programs on sexual and reproductive health. 

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