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How Digital Tech Is Improving Women's Health and Wellbeing in India

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This Tuesday, March 8, communities across the world will celebrate International Women's Day, a campaign highlighting the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women globally. With the World Economic Forum recently extending the predicted date that gender equality will be achieved by nearly 40 years (from 2096 to 2133), it's particularly poignant that this year's campaign theme is #PledgeForParity.

One of the leading barometers for global gender parity is the United Nations Development Programme's Gender Inequality Index, which measures a number of factors such as women's reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation. Currently lagging in 130th place on this Index, and in the bottom twenty countries, is India. But things are changing.

India is at a pivotal point in its history. As the world's fastest-growing economy, internet access across India is rapidly increasing and, by 2017, it's expected to become the second largest smartphone market on the planet. With the dual effect of enhanced access to digital solutions helping to improve women's health and wellbeing, combined with support for the rise in entrepreneurship, the stage is set for a movement to address the gender imbalance.

At the forefront of this movement is a growing host of remarkable local digital innovators. Over the last three years, Nominet Trust's quest to find new and inspirational social tech projects for our NT100 showcase has shone a light upon three mobile technology initiatives in India. All led by incredible female entrepreneurs, they are not only radically improving the daily lives of women, but also forming part of a more significant movement towards gender parity.

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New beginnings for maternal health

The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) uses mobile phones to deliver vital health information to new and expectant mothers, supporting programmes in India, Bangladesh and Africa. According to MAMA, India accounts for 17 per cent of global maternal mortality, 27 per cent of global newborn mortality and 25 per cent of global child mortality - the largest share of any country. However the ubiquity of mobile phones has made possible the introduction of a knowledge-sharing service for young, under-served women, often with low literacy levels, with the aim of reducing often preventable deaths.

In 2014, MAMA launched a programme in the Mumbai slums, partnering with ARMANN, an NGO founded by urogynecologist, social entrepreneur and TEDx speaker, Dr Aparna Hegde. Known as mMitra (mitra literally meaning 'friend' in Hindi), the digital service sends free pregnancy and child health information to pregnant women and new mothers twice each week, in a language and at a time of their choosing. Information is sent via SMS or as a recorded message, and explains the developmental stage of a child throughout pregnancy and the baby's first year of life. Mothers therefore understand the expected developmental milestones and can identify and seek treatment for potential health issues before they escalate. Within the first few months alone, mMitra had 50,000 subscribers. MAMA hopes to take the programme to scale across India.

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Hard life, early death

Diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) can have particularly severe consequences for Indian women during their reproductive years. TB is one of the top five causes of death for adult women aged 20-59 and India has the highest number of TB sufferers globally, with 220,000 total deaths in 2014 according to the World Health Organisation.

Once again, however, a determined female entrepreneur is helping to combat the issue. Operation ASHA, an NGO based in New Delhi, was co-founded by inspirational professor and surgeon, Dr. Shelly Batra. In partnership with Microsoft Research, she developed an innovative, portable biometric tracking system called eCompliance that has taken TB treatment to the doorsteps of rural communities and slum dwellers across India.

eCompliance aims to improve successful completion of TB patients' full treatment regimen, reducing the default rate that is contributing to the rise of new, drug-resistant, strains of the disease (MDR-TB). Limited resources and infrastructure mean that health professionals struggle to track their patients comprehensively. As a result, India has the highest prevalence of MDR-TB of any country in the world. Operation ASHA uses fingerprint recognition and SMS messaging to ensure patients are adhering to their treatment regimens. At each clinic visit, both the patient and the healthcare worker scan their fingerprints, medication is dispensed and the treatment is recorded in the system's database. If a patient misses a dose, an SMS message alert is sent to the patient and healthcare worker. The digitisation of the patient records also enables accurate reports to be produced and allows targeted counselling to be provided.

There are now over 130 community centres in India with eCompliance terminals, and over 220,000 visits have been logged. The default rate for patients on the programme has been reported in the BMJ Open as an amazingly low 3.2%, compared with 11.5% at other South Delhi TB treatment centres. The model has now been rolled out in Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Kenya and Uganda.

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Empowering women by creating safe public spaces

A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India found that 92 per cent of working women across many cities felt insecure, especially at night. One project that aims to empower women by encouraging them to tell their harassment stories is Safecity, a mobile and online community founded by Elsa D'Silva, who was herself inspired by the success of other crowd-mapping initiatives.

Shortly after the now infamous gang rape of a medical student on a Delhi bus, Elsa devised the idea for women to use a phone app to map hotspots of abuse. Talking to The Guardian, she says: "That was when everything lined up and I said to myself: Safety and security need to be urgently addressed. Until then, not many of us were even talking about it actively or openly enough, including me. It was that rape that really got me thinking more actively ... then I started to remember the various incidents that had taken place in my own life." Her personal silence broken, D'Silva began to talk to friends: "I realised that every one of them had a story to share, but until then we had never really spoken about it."

Safecity also aims to use the data it collects to inform future urban planning, for example highlighting areas which currently have little or no street lighting. Elsa hopes the project will encourage the Indian government to improve legislation on gender equality by creating a louder voice for women's safety and rights. Already, over 4,000 stories have been collected on Safecity from 50 Indian cities.

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Digital technology is the tool helping these inspirational women respond to challenges surrounding gender inequality. You can find out more about these and others like them at socialtech.org.uk, the world's largest database of tech for good projects.

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