Pink telephones: using technology to empower women in Cambodia

Gender, Innovation

In the run up to International Women’s Day, Chaliya Sophasawatsakul explains the origins of a project to use mobile phones to support women’s empowerment in Cambodia.

“In the night time it is very beneficial to have the phone, we can help pregnant women in labour on time.” 

Seng Chanthou is a female commune councillor (FCC) from the Treal Commune in the Baray district, central Cambodia. She is just one of the 45 women who received pink mobile phones as part of the Digital Vision Small Grant Development Programme. And helping to deliver babies is just one of the surprising ways in which the phones are being used. 

I first travelled to Cambodia in August 2010 with Taipida Moodhitaporn, Oxfam GB’s Digital Vision Manager for the Asia region, and Opendream, our technology partner, to conduct research into how mobile technology could improve Oxfam’s programmes. We met Nanda Pok, founder of Oxfam partner Women for Prosperity (WfP), and Menh Navy, Oxfam’s Cambodia Research and Communications Officer. 

Women for Prosperity has been an Oxfam partner for many years, and has had a strong focus on promoting women’s leadership skills. Oxfam has supported WfP’s work in addressing the challenges women face in participating in formal decision-making processes and that, once elected, female councillors face in being effective community leaders. 

Since June 2010, WfP has been implementing a project to promote women’s economic empowerment, which aims to improve community livelihoods through building the capacity of female commune councillors to be agents of change in the economic sphere. 

Nanda conducts meetings with the women involved in this project and was regularly making around 45 phone calls in order to gather all the women in one place, since they are scattered in different villages. Most of these women did not have their own phones: phones are usually shared within the family or are owned by their husbands.

Taipida suggested that a Digital Vision Small Grant could be used to purchase phones for these women. Opendream suggested a free tool, called Frontline SMS, which allows a user to send mass messages at the click of a button.

And the pink colour? This came about after Nanda mentioned a project where she’d bought bicycles for the women to enable them to travel more easily. She had made them pink, so that the men in the village would not use them. This sounded like a fantastic idea and we decided to make the phones pink as well. 

The Digital Vision Small Grant is a quarterly grant of £500.00 that Oxfam GB’s Digital Vision team in Asia region provides to programmes to support them to implement technology in their work in innovative ways.  

Oxfam staff in Cambodia and Women for Prosperity purchased 30 phones with the £500 from the small grant, and provided training for the women on how to use SMS in Khmer. It was not easy: some of the women have never used SMS before. In addition, there is the added difficulty of keying in Khmer characters, which require the user navigating several menus on the phone, meaning that a simple message can take several clicks to send. 

A year later, the Digital Vision team and Opendream visited Cambodia again, to see how the project had developed. None of us had expected the phone project to turn out so well. We just thought of it as a means for coordination – for the meetings to take place more effectively. Little did we know it would come into play in so many other areas of the women’s lives. 

As we had expected, the phones are saving the women a great deal of time, as they no longer have to cycle long distances to speak to other councillors or community members. They also support the women’s livelihoods by providing them with current market prices of agricultural commodities, as well as giving them storm warnings.

However, the women also told us how the phones are helping them to support community members with all sorts of issues, and in particular, to respond to the needs of women. 

“When there is a case of domestic violence, the village can call me and I come to help do an intervention immediately; before they had to travel to my place and knock on my door,” says Chea Kimhong, a FCC from Angdong Por Commune

That isn’t to say that the phones haven’t been without problems: for example, Frontline SMS, the current method of sending messages, has been quite slow and has had a lot of bugs, but we are exploring a new option for sending messages.

At the moment, women are still largely dependent on Oxfam for credit on the phones, but many are starting to see the importance of the phone in their lives and are trying to save money for it. They recognise that sending a message by phone is cheaper than buying fuel for travelling by motorbike.

Change takes time and the women are still building their confidence with using the phones, but they are open to learning new things and the phones are just the start.

Pink telephone video

Author: Chaliya Sophasawatsakal
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.