It’s a sunny afternoon in rural Myanmar, and the village women are abuzz with excitement.
They’re gathering for a crash course on the internet, designed foremost to teach them how to use iWomen, a mobile app that connects women across the country.
The app publishes testimonials from village women, and allows them to support and encourage one another through chat boards.
What started as a communication backdrop for isolated rural women communities to connect with each other soon expanded to something larger – a national network. Now, only 50 percent of the users are from existing women groups, and 20 percent are male.
GovInsider spoke to Allison Moore, Programme Specialist at UNDP Myanmar to discuss how the mobile platform has helped empower women in the community, and the plans for future development.
How has it helped?
First, iWomen allows women to share their voice, connecting those in rural villages nationwide. They found that they are all facing pushback, difficulties and challenges in trying to move forward with their goals, says Moore. “When their husbands put them down, they actually felt better [when] other women lifted them up.” The app was launched in March last year, and now has 3,500 active users.
iWomen is “the kind of network that’s becoming a safety net in that way”, Moore explains.
“Myanmar is an incredibly disaster-prone site, so a lot of people are talking about what happened when they were at the lowest point of their lives”, recovering from disasters, she says.
Inspirational stories are a “huge draw”, showing a high uptick in users when new ones are uploaded every week, Moore says. “There’s a kind of rhythm”, and “that’s when they’ll turn on their data and go on to the app.”
The sense of community and social recognition earned through iWomen also strengthens local women leaders in their roles. “One way that they’re using the app now is to increase their own status”, she explains. They believe that “I was able now to help these other families in my own community because I was part of this bigger network and this gives me some real sense of accomplishment”, she says.
Second, the app serves as an education platform, providing citizens information on rights issues like violence against women and how to make land registrations to avoid land grabs, Moore says. There are also “groups of paralegals going around the country” to spread awareness on land protection, she continues.
To enrich the content, UNDP has partnered with media organisations and international rights groups for more data. And some of these information requests have come from the women leaders themselves, Moore says. “All of [the organisations] have been really happy to contribute information because they are developing it in Myanmar already”, she adds. “People have found it very useful as a way to increase the impact of something they’re already developing, and to reach more women than they wont have reached before.”
Third, the mobile app could help government shape policies. Last year, Moore’s team conducted a survey on violence against women, collected personal testimonials and presented this to the government department of social welfare. “We brought the results to them and said ‘this is really helpful data to have from the ground in Myanmar about women’s’ actual experience’, so they really welcomed that.”. It hasn’t yet resulted in any policy changes, but the effort has just started, and Moore is hopeful.
The 20 percent of male users they’ve got in their database have also guided UNDP’s strategy. It’s “really important, because those people change the context in which women leaders are trying to emerge”, she says. “It’s changing our strategy that way too, from interventions that were really focused” on women support to one “that looks more broadly at the environment, and how we can engage those other people too”, Moore explains.
Connecting the unconnected
Women who don’t have internet connection aren’t excluded from reaping the benefits of the app. In Myanmar, women are 29 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and often rely on men to choose their handset model and operator. Despite this, they “are sharing it in offline communities”, says Moore. “The point of actually doing an app was really so that, actually, the information could stay on your phone.” Someone will travel to a township with internet connectivity, get content downloaded, and share it to their village community through bluetooth when they get together in person, she explains. “That’s what we’re encouraging them to do.”
More, more, more
There are plans for a wider outreach through the app. “The features that will allow us to really take off in the future would be something that continues to connect the users to market information and economic information.” For instance, for farmers: the knowledge of commodity prices so they can have better negotiating power; for migrant workers: better job information so they’ll know where the jobs are, what to expect, and how to protect themselves, she says.
There will be more legal information published on iWomen too. “There’s huge appetite for more legal information that people have really been clambering towards. And I think that’s coming along with the growing confidence as the democratic transition continues, that actually, there will be more rule of law”, she says. “They can actually make arguments and do things about legal rights now – that you couldn’t do before.”
And beyond that, Moore has a vision to connect women on the platform to international communities, reaching outside Myanmar. An Indian NGO is visiting UNDP next month to replicate their efforts, possibly, making iWomen work in their country.
“It would be really interesting if there becomes a cross-language iWomen community… because a lot of these things aren’t just Myanmar-specific issues that the women are facing.” What “we need to do is take advantage of the Google Translate widget”, embedding it into the app’s function so “people can be part of a direct conversation with others”, she adds.
Plans for the other gender, perhaps? iMen, in the future, might be interesting, Moore mulls. “Men are coming to us and actually asking, ‘Can’t you make an iMen app?’”.
Haven’t you heard? Ladies, always, come first.
iWomen is available on the Play Store, and can be downloaded here.