Mobiles for Women, Part Two: The Darker Side

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on May 17, 2011

Targeting women with mobile phones and mobile-based projects can bring great benefits and opportunities, as we outlined in Part 1 of our series on women and mobiles. But, there is a “darker side” to this world, which includes changes in gender relations and power dynamic, a potential increase in violence, substitution of money or a change in expenditures, invasion of privacy, and increased control by a male partner.

Changes in Gender Relations and Power Dynamics

When the traditional social dynamic of a household is patriarchal, introducing a mobile phone into the hands of the woman can challenge the existing gender structure. Trina DasGupta, mWomen Programme Director for the GSMA Development Fund, writes in an e-mail to, “threats to the status quo have sometimes been viewed negatively by community leaders and we have seen examples of this gender discrimination manifesting itself when women gain greater access to empowering tools, such as the Internet or mobile phones.”  

Women themselves may not agree. The GRACE project study in Kenya, for example, finds that women do not perceive mobiles at tools for males. “Unlike our literature review that suggested that the mobile phone is culturally construed as a male tool, the women entrepreneurs did not perceive the phone as such. However, the study does indicate that usage of the phone is culturally construed, with an increase in responsibilities and empowerment for one or other profession socially construed as women’s work.”

A paper by Aramanzan Madanda looks at gender relations and ICT adoption in Uganda (the work will soon be published in book format) and finds that “existing gender structures have been dented and that patriarchy is stressed by adoption of the technologies especially mobile phones leading to transformation of gender relations to an extent.”  

Geeta Shroff, co-author of a research study that presents a design model for empowering low-income women in India, said that if a women is given too much power via a mobile phone, other members of the family may not be comfortable with this “and that might actually hurt the woman is some way.”  

“Husbands like to be in control in the family, and they basically wouldn’t feel in control if the woman was the only one with the cell phone,” Shroff said.  

An Increase in Gender Violence?

It has been difficult to ascertain to what extent mobile phone ownership contributes to an increase in gender violence against women.

In many cases, it may be increased freedom, and not the actual mobile phone, that leads to violence and inequality. DasGupta writes in an email that, “there have been anecdotal reports of women’s ownership of mobile phones exacerbating gender violence; however it is not clear that having a mobile phone is the only and direct reason for any increase in violence.  Mobile phone ownership allows women increased freedom, which can instigate existing concerns of gender violence and inequality.”

The evidence so far is sketchy. An article suggests that while mobile phones can liberate women, they also promote gender violence. It highlights the work of Madanda, an organization that “finds a strong intersection between use of especially mobile phones and escalation of gender based violence.”  According to its findings, 46 percent of people had problems with spouses in relation to the use of mobile phones and 16 percent reported conflicts over the use of computers.

An IPS News article suggests that a lack of control leads to violence. "Traditionally, in Busoga (one of the study sites), a woman must seek her spouse’s consent to go anywhere, whether to visit a relative or go to the market. ... But now women can be directly in touch with relatives and other people without their husband’s consent and since men have lost that power to control the women some turn to violence."

Shikoh Gitau, who focuses her work on the use of ICTs to empower communities, women, and young people, shared an example with

"MixIt has such a bad name in South Africa,” Gitau said. “Men say, if you use MixIt, you are going to go away with another man. Or you are going to run away.” One woman Gitau met was forbidden to use her phone to access the Internet. “That’s how bad it is.” The woman told Gitau her story saying “Yes, he has stopped me from using the Internet, but he does not know this is where we can get jobs.” Though she is aware of getting jobs via mobile, she respects her husband, so she doesn’t use the Internet. Gitau returned a few months later and asked the same woman if she had used the Internet on her phone. The woman said, “Of course I used the Internet.” But what about your husband, Gitau asked her? “He does not know what is good for us,” the woman said.

“For me, she was taking the risk of being beaten up by her husband to go on the Internet,” Gitau said. After being in the field for six months, Gitau said that she believes gender-based violence is a significant problem. But, it’s not because they have the Internet or mobile so much as it is a “violence-rated area”, she said.

Gitau also raises the point of mobile theft. Mobiles are often stolen and sold to bring extra money to a family. But, from her experiences, this does not dissuade a women from getting a mobile phone. “There is an idea that it’s something we need now. That we we’ll continue to buy one even if violence or theft is an issue.”

“It’s the same cycle. I buy a phone today. Tomorrow someone hits me and they get my phone. And I will walk out and get another phone because I want the Internet,” Gitau said.

Change in Expenditure and Financial Substitution

Another potential danger in targeting women with mobiles is the potential for financial substitution -- money that is normally spent on the household is diverted to paying for a mobile phone and services. Gitau said that in some areas, the cost of Internet access on a mobile is nearly equivalent to the cost of a small bag of salt. And for that cost, a woman can browse the whole night on the Internet.

For many, substitution is done out of necessity since a mobile phone contributes to livelihood and income generation. DasGupta writes, “with regards to expenditures, consumers in the developing world have chosen to spend their precious income on mobile phones and services because it facilitates their needs, particularly around greater income generation.”

In her work, Kathleen Diga, a well-known researcher in this area, finds that “among family members, women were more likely to sacrifice critical family expenses like food while men sacrificed more personal, discretionary spending items such as entertainment costs.” Women saved a part of the household food allowance money to buy airtime. And, “overall, men tended to make personal expenditure sacrifices for mobile phone airtime while women derived the cost for airtime from the family’s daily household allowance.”

The research study that presents a design model for empowering low income women suggests that there are different phases involved with mobile phone prioritization. Shroff, the co-author of the study, said that many times, people can’t even afford secondary items. So, what little money they do have goes for food and day-to-day expenses. And usually, it’s the male members of the family who  have a say in expenses that go beyond basic food costs.

Shroff defines five stages of empowerment for low-income women in rural and urban India: passive stages of powerlessness and initiation, and active stages of participation, adoption, and independence. The study presents these five stages as a model of how NGOs can effectively engage with poor women when it comes to technology intervention: different means of technology might be more useful at different stages of a woman’s empowerment.

“Usually women don’t even have a say in passive stages of empowerment. But as they get more educated, as they progress through stages of empowerment, start participating and becoming more economically self-sustainable,” Shroff said.

“At this point, the woman is able to decide what is most important. Maybe education for children. Then, after that, the cell phone, maybe,” Shroff said.

Invasion of Privacy

The GRACE project study finds that some women felt that invasion of privacy was a condition of this new mobile space:

"With the increased space provided by the phone, there were significant concerns expressed on the denial of this space within spousal relations -- where in some instances spouses sought to find out the contents of some of the communications conducted on the phone. Some of the women feel that there is a conditional benefit of this space due to the intrusion on their privacy."

The IPS News article suggests that in Uganda, “the rapid adoption of mobiles has also seen a rise in invasion of privacy through SMS stalking, monitoring and control of partners’ whereabouts.”

Returning to Shroff’s five stages of women’s empowerment in India, “we found that invasion of privacy definitely happens in the passive or early stages of empowerment,” Shroff said. “It all comes through the same: the monopolization of resources, the challenging of traditional hierarchies in the family, and invasion of privacy would be one of the consequences of those factors.”

But, Shroff also offered a quick solution. “As long as the goal is to involve the family, you don’t have to worry too much about invasion of privacy of the cell phone.” Instead of isolating the woman from the rest of the family, the family gets to participate. “Whatever the woman is learning is benefiting the whole family. That process makes the family feel more confident about it,” Shroff said.

Monopolization and Increased Control by a Male Partner

The design model study also finds that if a mobile phone is introduced too early in a woman’s stages of empowerment, she is at risk to lose the phone to the male head of household. If a mobile is introduced to a woman who is already being pressured within the family, and who is not yet independent, she risks monopolization of the cell phone, “where male members might snatch the cell phone, and use it for their own purposes. And the woman would not really get a chance to use the phone at all.”

In her thesis, Kathleen Diga writes that, “partner control appears to be exacerbated to some extent with some women owning mobile phones.” At one end, mobile phones may re-emphasize budget control for income earners:

"Some household heads claimed the mobile as their own and not to be shared (without their permission) by other family members. The reason that the mobile phone was not shared was to keep family members from wasting costly airtime on an unproductive call. If a phone call needed to be made, the phone owner would make the call on behalf of the family member. The mobile was not always shared as the phone owner stated that he or she did not want to share secrets with family members."

Study findings also show that “continuous gender imbalance of mobile phone usage and spending through unequal partner control of the mobile phone and reduced well-being from unprofitable phone calls.” While some family members increase their use of the mobile phone, more vulnerable members feel that are not benefiting from the new technology. Negative perceptions such as wasted or overused airtime and a breakdown of male authority “appear to reinforce asset control particularly with the mobile phone within the household.”

An Opportunity, not an Impediment

This darker side of mobiles for women is an opportunity, not an impediment says DasGupta. The GSMA mWomen Programme and partner Uninor were quick to react to the news about the Indian Village banning unmarried women from mobile phones. Within two months they launched Mera Mobile, Mera Saathi (My Mobile, My Companion), an awareness raising campaign in Tamil Nadu designed to emphasize the positive results that can be achieved when women own mobile phones.

Solutions and approaches are underway to address many of these potential drawbacks of mobiles in the hands of women. For example, a paper from the International Center for Research on Women on how technology can advance women includes recommendations for action, including questions to consider and what to do, and not to do, in technology initiatives. Other approaches conclude that the solution (in Uganda) is an ICT policy that is gender responsive -- a shift in the national ICT policy toward one that pays attention to gender relations at family, community, and policy levels.

In South Africa, with a history of gender-based violence, Gitau is turning to mobile phones as an answer. She is developing an application to help empower women by sending a low-cost CV via mobile. The app, Uwmeli, is free and currently available in South Africa. Every month, a CV reaches about 100 people. “These women are making it. Even though the violence is still there, with or without the mobile phone,” Gitau said. 

Shroff also suggests a more holisitc approach when introducing mobile phones to women. Women need to be aware about different topics affecting their family -- healthcare, agriculture, government incentives, their rights -- and skills and empowerment to bring a better life to their family, Shroff said. “If a woman is not made aware, there might be the risk of the woman being more fascinated by the entertainment and social aspects of the phone.” In which case, the mobile phone as a tool for empowerment loses effectiveness.

But, as always, mobile phones are not panacea. Shroff said programs aimed at mobile phones for women may think through a more nuanced approach.  Many projects have shown success in working with women through personal skill and confidence building entirely independent of mobile technology.

DasGupta writes that education with both men and women is critical to address empowerment and gender concerns. “What is most important to note is that mobile phones for women’s empowerment must be a part of broader gender equality programs; the mobile phone alone is not a silver bullet to solving deep development issues, such as gender violence.”

Photo from Flickr user Bill Zimmerman. Reposted under Creative Commons license.

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