Sharon BYLENGA, Voicing Our Rights, Shaping Our Future

Sharon Bylenga is the Boardchair of Media Matters for Women (MMW), at the forefront of harnessing Bluetooth on mobile phones to address the unmet information needs of women and girls in rural Africa.

MMW is a U.S.-registered nonprofit organization established in 2011 with operations in Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo. Their innovative communication networks are changing the way African women receive, share, and use information.  They are proving that the dissemination of reliable information in multiple languages can play a vital role in transforming African women’s lives.

“Our mission is to connect African women and girls with information that enables them to access and fully enjoy their rights.”

MMW projects in Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo have demonstrated over the last eight years a new kind of information network that is inexpensive to build and maintain, especially in comparison to radio. They connect rural women and girls in Africa with local journalists who report regularly and professionally on issues relevant to their lives in their local languages. They increase awareness on gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health rights, and economic empowerment, among many other topics.

“Our networks can effectively leapfrog radio broadcasting and thereby inexpensively transform the public service broadcasting sector in Africa. Through our networks, women and girls can share information, learn from each other, entertain each other, hear crucial messages, and join a movement that begins in their village and extends across their region.”

MMW fosters local journalism capabilities, produces original audio content in a professional podcast format in multiple languages, and delivers the content to listeners in innovative ways. Their main distribution method is through Listening Centers which their journalists establish in hospital waiting rooms, markets, youth centers, and other places where women and girls can easily gather.  Focal persons at each Listening Center are paid a small stipend to receive their weekly podcast via Bluetooth on their mobile phone and play it repeatedly on solar speakers. Focal persons encourage listeners to transfer their podcasts onto their mobile phones via Bluetooth to listen to later and to share with others. Listeners value their membership in this network and appreciate their original content.

“We recently tested a second distribution method, the “missed call” approach, with our partner Viamo in Ghana. We created twelve podcasts addressing sexual and reproductive health rights.  Listeners dial an advertised number and the connection is cut after the first ring. They immediately receive a call back and can hear our podcasts in the language of their choice for free.  We also include a survey at the end of the call which provides feedback on our service.”

In 2015, MMW received international recognition from UNESCO and UN Women who flew MMW Senior Journalist Alinah Kallon from Sierra Leone to Europe at the height of the Ebola crisis to present their work at Mobile Learning Week in Paris.

Support for MMW comes from many donors including African Women’s Development Fund, Oak Foundation, Millicom Foundation, Indigo Trust and AmplifyChange (Consortium Steering Committee members include the Global Fund for Women, African Women’s Development Fund and MannionDaniels).