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(Credit: Valerie Barry/iStockphoto)

Though smartphone users in the US do install apps designed to improve their lives, often the apps they have on their phones are intended for entertainment. With our focus on amusement, it can be easy to forget that in lesser developed countries technology can give people the tools to materially improve their lives and even survive.

With 4G networks coming to developing countries in just the last few the last few years, countries like India and Africa have found ways to their phones and apps to improve farming and herding practices, and fight hunger, for example.

And in Nigeria, the popular messaging service WhatsApp (download for iOS or Android) is granting women in the African city Kano more independence and economic and community opportunities, according to a study conducted by Naima Hafiz Abubakar and Salihu Ibrahim Dasuki.

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Abubakar, a lecturer at Bayero University in Kano, and Dasuki, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, interviewed Nigerian women about how WhatsApp is impacting their daily lives.

Political empowerment

It wasn't until 1979 that Nigerian women gained the right to vote. And despite their gains, women in Nigeria continue to face gender inequality, like many women around the world, but they have found an outlet to make their voices heard on WhatsApp.

According to the study, women leaders have created forums to help distribute messages and mobilize political party support through the app. Women voters can find information regarding elections and read updates from representatives about programs and projects.

"Initially I always wondered on how to communicate with elected officers especially those of them located in Abuja," Murja'atu, a housewife, told the researchers. "We only saw them during the election period but now this online group allows me to interact with them more frequently using the women leader as the intermediary."

The tool has help the women contact politicians who were previously often unaccountable for their actions.

"Our senator made some certain promises during his election campaign after some time we still had not heard from him," Safiya, a shop owner said. "I posted it on the group and other members picked up on it, we kept at it till the woman leader passed on our message. Some of the issues have been addressed now."

Education

Through the WhatsApp group, Nigerian women are able to learn more about subjects they had lacked training in or now what to know about. According to the study, through the app, women enrolled in university classes felt that the could more easily reach out to the group for help with homework.

And it's not just for students. Mothers are getting tips to help their children with homework from group members.

"I am not very good with mathematics, once my son came home with some quantitative reasoning; I tried a couple of times but couldn't figure out how to solve it," Habiba, a housewife, told the researchers. "I snapped a picture of the assignment and posted it on the group. Within a few minutes some members had solved it, they explained it to me how they did it and I was able to teach my son."

And the women are using it to stay informed on health issues. In the WhatsApp forums women are also helping each by sharing information on diseases, outbreaks, preventative health measures and potentially fake products.

And the study found, with WhatsApp's autoCorrect function, many Nigerian women's writing and language skills are improving.

Religion

The Kano state also has one of the largest population of most smartphone users, and the community is predominantly Muslim.

"Seeking knowledge about one's religion and understanding how to practice it, is considered to be a duty of every Muslim," the study reported. "The majority of the women who spoke in the focus group sessions were using WhatsApp to access the 'virtual Islamiyyah' (Islamic Study Center)."

Women can take part in classes four days a week on subjects including Hadith, Sirah, Fiqh and Tauheed. The forums are moderated by Muallims, or Islamic scholars, who post the day's lesson. If a student has a question, they simply post it to the forum and the Muallim will reply.

Economic and business opportunities

Women can also nurture their small businesses and conduct sales through WhatsApp. The transactions work similarly to shopping apps like Amazon (download for iOS or Android) in the US.

Entrepreneurs market their products and services in the forum. When a client expresses interest, the user sends a photo of the product so the client knows what they'll be getting. The customer chooses how they want to pay and how the package should be delivered.

And women can browse job postings in the forums. Through WhatsApp voice or video calls, interested applicants can talk to the employers.

"My niece got a job as a hairdresser using this forum," Juwairiya, a housewife, told the researchers. "One of the ladies posted the advert and I indicated interest for my niece. I gave her my phone and the interview was conducted via the WhatsApp video call."

The study noted that women are learning to be are wary of fake job postings and scams meant to defraud them.

Relationships and dismantling gender stereotypes

In addition to giving Nigerian women more independence and venues to grow, the WhatsApp forums build communities and networks between the users.

Through engaging in the forums -- whether for virtual Islamiyyah, getting homework help or doing business transactions -- the women are gaining a sense of belonging in their communities.

With the strength of a community, Nigerian women are pushing back against gender stereotypes in a culture that tends to limit them to wives and mothers.

"[The] use of mobile phones, specifically WhatsApp, has given women the freedoms to exercise their agency by acting as agents of their own lives," the study reported.

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Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.