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The Promise of Mobile Technology for Social Change

I recently found myself thinking about thinking about mobile marketing in an unexpected way. Last week, with my morning coffee and a copy of the Boston Globe in hand, I came across an article that stopped me in my tracks. The story that I am referring to is probably familiar to most by now. It was the account of 19-year-old Gulzna (who goes by one name), the Afghani girl who agreed to marry her rapist in order to be released from jail.

A little back story on Gulzna and her harrowing tale. Gulzna was 17 years old when minding her own business within the confines of her own home, an intruder broke in, tied her up, beat her, and raped her. After giving some thought to the matter, Gulzna did a brave thing for an Afghani woman. She went to the police to report the crime. You see in Afghanistan, being a woman is akin to being a criminal. When Gulzna reported the crime, officials scoffed at her, assured that she must have done something to entice the man. Not only was her act of courage met with disdain, she was accused of adultery and sentenced to jail. Two years later, a deal was offered that gave her a chance at living outside of prison. Gulzna could leave jail if she agreed to marry her rapist. That way, the dishonor she brought on to her family by being raped would be restored.

So what does this have to do with mobile marketing? Every time I hear stories like this one I have this pit in my stomach feeling that there is absolutely no hope for the disenfranchised, downtrodden, and in this case women, in countries like Afghanistan. Even the efforts of the United States over the last 10 years have done absolutely nothing to change the mindset of this tribal nation. So where is there any glimmer of hope? I think it comes in the form of mobile technology.

Look at what is happening all over the world in areas where the civil rights of citizens are absent? In Egypt, the government toppled. In Libya, Gadhafi is gone. In Russia this very week, a tainted election has brought thousands into the streets in protest. All of this was done without foreign intervention or military force. And how is this possible? It is all due to the unique ability for people to reach out to each other and create a gathering in an instant. With the surprise factor, and a massive turn out, it is very hard for the oppressors to be ready and waiting with crushing force. It is even more difficult for them to cover up their actions, especially when large crowds of people are armed with cameras.

The main benefit of mobile technology is that it can reach anyone, anywhere, any time. It provides a constant conversation that can be impossible to stop once it gets going. Imagine if all of the women in Afghanistan had access to cell phones or computers? They could act as citizen reporters and capture images of crimes against them as they happened. They could organize support groups in the quiet anonymity of their homes, without arousing suspicion. They could connect with their foreign “sisters” who could talk them through their darkest moments. Perhaps they could then raise a generation who might have enough enlightened and emboldened members to finally take a stand together. Their abusers would be exposed for the entire world to see. The nature of their misguided notions of right and wrong might then stick to each and every one of them to the extent that maybe, just maybe, they start to develop an understanding of their errant ways. Encouragingly, a 2007 census revealed that 165,000 per 1000 Afghani households already had cell phones.

I don’t think there will be a dramatic change tomorrow, but for once I feel like to winds of freedom are drifting into places where they are unstoppable. All we need to do is make sure to be on the other end of the call when it comes.

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