Innovative Use of Universal Service Funds: Sanchar Shakti, “Gaining Strength”

During this past International Women’s Day, 8 March 2011, the Indian government announced an innovative scheme to incentivise private telecommunication and information providers to create empowering value added services (VAS) for women. Building on the government’s existing Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), which aims to “provide access to telegraph services to people in the rural and remote areas at affordable and reasonable prices” (more detail here), the Indian government launched Sanchar Shakti, which means “Gaining Strength” in Hindi, to increase rural women’s access to empowerment tools on their mobile phones.

This scheme is one of the first known in the world whereby governments incentivise mobile network operators to create such content. The initiative aims to use mobile solutions to increase the income opportunities of women self-help group (SHG) members. These are women who are part of small, village-based financial intermediaries which collect small regular savings from all members and then use these contributions to loan money to members. Sanchar Shakti aims to increase awareness and education amongst these women in subjects such as health, sanitation, hygiene and social issues via the mobile channel.

At the GSMA mWomen Programme, we are working to enable female ownership of mobile phones and to provide life-changing services for women in the developing world, so Sanchar Shakti speaks to our goal of closing the mobile phone gender gap through global public-private partnerships between the worldwide mobile industry and the international development community. In light of this, we were especially pleased to see that two members of the GSMA mWomen Working Group, Uninor and Vodafone India, are partnering with the Indian government on this project.

The GSMA mWomen Programme believes this is an excellent use of state resources. We encourage other governments to explore the use of funds such as India’s USOF to incentivize the creation and distribution of life-changing services for BOP women via the mobile channel, as it addresses many of the core barriers to women’s mobile phone ownership. By promoting culturally appropriate, income-generating value added mobile services, policy makers can help further the economic and social benefits associated with women’s use of mobile phones.

It’s heartening to see such a forward thinking initiative launched in a country where it has the potential to improve so many women’s lives. We look forward to hearing the progress of Sanchar Shakti and seeing what other government initiatives may emerge in the near future.

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