If you’ve heard of Bitcoin—the first decentralized digital currency that functions without a central bank or other third-party intermediary—you may have also heard of the transformative technology behind the cryptocurrency: blockchain. Put simply, blockchain is an immutable ledger—a series of data points strung into time-stamped blocks that cannot be modified and that are distributed across a global network of computers.
Blockchain, however, can do far more than power cryptocurrencies. From securing personal records to contracts to payments, it may also drive the next frontier of women’s economic empowerment.
According to the World Bank, women in developing countries are less likely than men to hold an official ID, often because they lack a birth certificate or other necessary documentation. Blockchain’s ability to store personal records in a safe and cost-efficient way can provide women with digital IDs, which in turn could allow them to own land and bank accounts or take advantage of job opportunities in the formal economy.
Seventy percent of the world’s population lacks access to land titling, with women disproportionately burdened by insecure land rights. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for example, women own less than 20% of the world’s land. In the majority of countries, women’s land rights are stymied by insufficient enforcement of land laws, discrepancies between constitutions and customary law, and patriarchal power structures that govern many households and communities.
Storing contracts in a blockchain would help women protect their property ownership, given the technology’s ability to eliminate the falsification of documents. Because of software that is distributed across the blockchain network and algorithmically verifies each transaction, it is impossible to forge a blockchain entry or to edit an existing one. As far as women’s land rights are concerned, no government official nor male relative could later deny that a contested piece of land belonged to a woman if the contract was documented in a blockchain.
Blockchain provides a secure way to complete financial transactions, which could bring financial services to the 42% of women worldwide who are still without bank accounts. Importantly, payments made with blockchain can be free (depending on which cryptocurrency is used), since the technology is based on peer-to-peer transactions, functioning without a third-party intermediary such as a central bank. Likewise, there are no costs associated with opening a cryptocurrency wallet, removing a significant barrier to entry for many women, who are less likely than their male counterparts to be able to afford maintenance fees or minimum balance requirements as a result of their overrepresentation in part-time and informal employment.
Startups such as 37Coins are even beginning to explore the possibility of blockchain payments being made via SMS, meaning that Wi-Fi and smartphones would not be required to use blockchain financial services. With a 23% gender gap in Internet access across the developing world—fueled by deeply entrenched cultural norms and women’s unique financial constraints—the ability to make payments via SMS eliminates another challenge women commonly face, especially in rural areas.
To be clear: blockchain is not a panacea. Ninety percent of economies still have laws on the books that impede women’s economic opportunities. And, in many countries—even where women are granted legal equality by their governments—customary law can supersede statutory law.
Blockchain can’t change the law, nor can it alter social norms. But it can serve as a transformative tool for boosting women’s economic opportunities in places where they have rights, but lack the infrastructure to realize them.
Becky Allen is a research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.