Tapping the power of female innovation

opinion March 08, 2019 01:00

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

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This year’s theme for International Women’s Day taps the technological revolution sweeping the world and changing lives everywhere. “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” puts innovation at the centre of efforts to reflect the needs and viewpoints of women and girls and to leap over barriers to public services and opportunities. 

Rural life need no longer mean exclusion when mobile money technology and digital payments can deliver social benefits to even the most remote households. Lack of roads need not prevent life-saving medication from reaching patients, with smart inventions like 15-year old Nigerian Eno Ekanem’s drone to make drops to rural areas, controlled by SMS messaging. 

Lack of electric lighting did not stop midwife Lorina Karway from delivering babies at night in remote parts of Liberia – she improvised using her phone light. Now, however, simple, low-cost solar lamps made by women have brought a creative, sustainable solution to Karway, and to many health centres and individual homes that previously lacked access to the energy grid. 

Women’s innovative solutions are also transforming large-scale infrastructure, both virtual and physical. The United Nations’ “Buy from Women Enterprise Platform” uses mobile technology to connect female farmers and their cooperatives to information, finance and markets, optimising the supply chain for women. 

Meanwhile the large “Senergy” solar-power project in Dakar, Senegal drew on women’s ideas for development, also bringing shared benefits like upgrades to the local school, the funding of a microcredit association to promote women’s businesses in the local area, and the premises for a maternity unit. 

In Syria, architect Marwa al-Sabouni’s award-winning vision for the redevelopment of the destroyed district of Baba Amr, in Homs, features ways to restore cooperation, social cohesion and a sense of identity after the devastation of war. 

Innovation and technology reflect their designers and makers. Algorithms increasingly determine selection and response in our digital era, but women are routinely left out of the data on which decisions are made. “Big data” is only a 

reliable support for decision-making if it draws on a pool of unbiased information. 

 Groups that are under-represented and marginalised based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic status also need to have the opportunity to create and to provide feedback on what is created by others. This might be urban planning for pedestrian safety with simple measures like better lighting and walkways that reflect crowdsourced data on hotspot attack or harassment zones. Or it could be toilets that support women’s period management needs. Or the use of biometrics as ID to replace formal registration documents that many women may not have or control. In any of these scenarios, innovation and technology with a gender perspective are crucial to remove barriers and accelerate progress for equality.

Our Global Innovation Coalition for Change brings representatives from the private sector, academia and non-profit institutions to develop the innovation market so it works better for women and accelerates the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

Women and girls must have opportunities to contribute to this era of innovation, and help shape the policies, services and infrastructure that impact their lives. We have seen from recent marches for climate action in Europe and elsewhere that they are ready to do so. 

When we put the focus on those who are least heard and least visible – whether individuals or those hundreds of millions of informal sector workers who currently have little or no presence in official planning, or financial protection that will sustain them in ill-heath, childcare or older age – we are tackling some of the deepest-reaching social problems. These efforts will bring the progress we want to see.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women.




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