Cherie Blair: Liberate women – give them mobile phones

New technologies improve business prospects and force social innovation

I was an early beneficiary of the way in which new technology can transform a woman's life. In the 1980s, when my older children were still toddlers, it was the arrival of the personal computer that allowed me to combine child-rearing with continuing my career as a barrister, largely from home.

At a time when computer literacy was rare in the legal profession, my little knowledge led to me chairing the Bar Council's IT committee. In our age defined by technology, those cut off from this information revolution are at a huge disadvantage. Today, on International Women's Day, it is worrying, as recent research from the GSMA association of mobile operators and my own foundation has confirmed, that it is women in particular who are missing out on this revolution in many parts of the developing world.

Women in Africa are 23 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, 24 per cent in the Middle East and 37 per cent in South Asia. As women in these countries testify, there are wide-ranging benefits that simply owning a mobile phone – if they've managed to acquire one – brings to their lives. In parts of the world where there are few, if any, landlines (indeed, the almost universal nature of mobile coverage means these networks will never be built), nine out of ten women said a mobile phone made them feel safer. Almost as many said it made them feel more independent, and 41 per cent say it has increased their income and opportunities.

The role mobile phones play in increasing economic opportunities for women is transformative. Women in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have told me how having their own income gives them more confidence and status within the family that leads to their having an input into key decisions. They are, for example, much more likely to be able to insist their daughters receive an education. Greater financial independence gives women more control over their own bodies, the power to insist on safe sex, for example.

Since women spend 90 per cent of their income on their families – a far higher proportion than men, who, studies show, spend more on themselves – their personal economic success boosts the income of the whole family and is key to combating poverty and ill-health.

How can merely having access to a mobile phone improve a woman's business prospects? Women farmers – and they are mainly women – use texts to check on prices for crops so they get the best deals at markets. In areas where transport links are poor and banks few and far between, texts are used to send payments to suppliers. And mobile phones are also being used innovatively to bring wider social benefits. Texts pass on important health messages and even facilitate schemes to improve the literacy of girls and women.

Helping women to talk more may seem more like the start of an old Music Hall joke than a recommendation to mark International Women's Day. But the personal, economic and development impact of closing the technology gap is no laughing matter.