U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton just launched the GSMA‘s ambitious, new campaign to bring mobile access to 150 million women in low and middle-income countries within the next 3 years. The GSMA is the trade organization for the world’s mobile carriers and 20 carriers operating in 115 developing markets, including AT&T and Vodafone, have signed up for the campaign. Nokia has also committed to the program.

This isn’t just a charitable initiative for the mobile carriers. Two thirds of the 1.25 billion people in the world who have mobile coverage, but don’t own a mobile phone, are women. This untapped female market represents an enormous revenue opportunity ranging from US$740 Million in Latin America to US$4 Billion in East Asia.

Across all the targeted countries a woman is 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. This figure increases to 37 percent if she lives in South Asia. Women in rural areas and lower-income brackets are least likely to own a phone but often borrow phones regularly. The main barrier to ownership is cost. When the price of a mobile phone service drops below 5 percent of household income, ownership among the female population starts to increase dramatically.

Access to mobile services has major benefits for individual women and the economies of their countries. According to the GSMA’s report on women and mobile, 93 percent of women in developing countries reported feeling safer because of their mobile phone and 41 percent said they had increased income and professional opportunities once they owned a mobile phone. Mobile phone ownership is also an engine for economic growth. Research by Deloitte linked a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration to a 1.2 percent increase in GDP.

20 percent of women who don’t own a phone say that the reason is because all their communication is local. According to research from mobile payments company mChek in India, even among women who are not willing to pay for voice services, a subset would value mobile money services enough to pay for mobile access. This is because lower-income women have few options for saving or transferring money securely.

As part of the mWomen campaign, Vodafone has also launched an application competition for apps targeted at the specific needs of women in developing countries. There is a $10,000 prize for an app in each of the smartphone and feature phone categories.

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