Deconstructing Mobiles: Myths and Realities about Women and Mobile Phones

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Oct 16, 2009

Mobile phones have been a boon to developing countries and to social development. Access to mobiles may indeed allow for better medical information, change the way farmers grow and sell crops, expand the way families interact, influence the way governments treat their citizens, and improve the way students learn in schools. But what is the real story behind these benefits? And who really gains from them? In our ongoing series on Mobile Myths and Realities: Deconstructing Mobile" we turn to how women are or are not benefitting from the ibiquity of mobile telephony. What did we find?

Mobile technology has the ability to change the way we communicate, but its effects are not evenly distributed. In societies that are divided by social and gender roles, women, especially rural women, are often left out. Gender disparity in society is often echoed in mobile usage; while technology allows some women greater social and economic freedom, in other cases, it simply upholds previously held social constructs. In the areas of social interactions, education, and economics, mobile phones have a distinctly gendered impact on its users. An examination of research and case studies that focus on women and mobile technology reveals that although access to mobile telephones has many benefits for female users, it not a solution to female poverty or gender inequality.


So why are mobile phones viewed as a near-perfect device? In the media, everyone from The New York Times to The Economist has written about how cell phones are changing the way of life in developing countries for the better. And it’s true that phones are having great effects in many facets of life, for both men and women. However, this cheerleader attitude doesn’t always address the thornier issue of how new technologies fit into established ways of life.

In her case study “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda" (Diga, 2008) Kathleen Diga writes:

…The findings also reveal 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. Some households suffer under the exacerbated control of assets by the family’s income earner or household head. While some members are increasing their use of the mobile phone, the more vulnerable members feel that they are not benefiting from the new technology purchased.

For example, some focus group women were limited in usage of the phone or they were put under escalated control by their partners. Certain household members rarely made use of the mobile phone while the household head maintained possession of the tool. Women, for example, have calls completed on their behalf as partners fear the overuse of their airtime. The fear may also develop from a perception of breakdown in head authority within households of this conservative community.

These negative perceptions appear to re-enforced asset control particularly with the mobile phone within the household. Even in fruitful social calls with relatives, their own inefficient use of the tool directed the perception of mobile phones as not productive and in fact, inducing poverty unto their family.

In these situations, access to mobile phones neither changed traditional gender roles nor offered a marked improvement in the women’s quality of life. Social benefit programs using mobile tech hinge on the availability of mobile phones. Access to a mobile phone may be limited due to gender norms; in a household where the male head of the house controls the income and the spending, he can also control the phone.


In addition to availability, it is also necessary to be able to use the phone: this can mean both affording the phone (with its usage costs), and having the ability to work the phone.  There are also social barriers, for example, accepting the phone as a legitimate means of communication. In many oral cultures, there is importance put on face-to-face communication. Limited phone access and a lack of visual contact resulting in short, impersonal messages can make users feel isolated even if they are in contact with family or advocates via mobiles.

Spotty or expensive service can be limiting to users. Societal norms often leave women in charge of raising families and caring for the home, work that does not earn an income for women to afford a cell phone or airtime. In countries where the cost of making calls is prohibitively expensive, users are left to rely on either SMS messaging or beeps – calling other users and hanging up, so that the recipient calls back the original 'beeper' using their minutes.

These work-arounds have distinct downsides; SMS requires literacy in a language supported on cell phones, is relatively expensive as a means of communicatins comparied to women's incomes, and beeping requires having contacts that can financially support making phone calls. 

Of course, there are documnted positive impacts of mobiles; programs such as Text To Change, BridgeIT and Souktel, while gender-neutral, offer great opportunities to women – from anonymous sexual and reproductive health information, to the reinforcement of positive professional female role models, to fair access to job opportunities. And indeed, mobile phones have been shown to be a successful source of personal and professional growth for women in many instances. In Steven Klonner and Patrick Nolen’s 2008 case study “Does ICT Benefit the Poor? Evidence from South Africa,” the authors show that mobile phones can have a distinctly positive economic effect on female users:

We find substantial effects of network roll-out on labor market outcomes with remarkable gender-specific differences. Employment increases by 15 percentage points when a locality receives complete network coverage.

A gender-differentiated analysis shows that most of this effect is due to increased employment by women, in particular those who are not burdened with large child care responsibilities at their homes. All of the employment gains accrue in wage employed occupations.

Self-employment does not change significantly as network coverage becomes available.

We also find a substantial sectoral shift among the rural employed. Agricultural employment decreases substantially, especially among males.

To highlight our gender findings, mobile phone network roll-out has left employment for males unaffected but did result in a substantial sectoral shift out of agriculture while women experienced large gains in employment, albeit with no changes in the sectoral composition. Household income increases in a pro-poor way when cellular infrastructure is provided and the estimated decreases in extreme poverty are substantial.


In theory, the greatest benefit of a mobile phone is that they give the user access to a much broader circle of communication than before. The problem with this theory is that it assumes that mobile phones are a solution in-and-of-themselves – that the presence of a mobile phone immediately offers unlimited access to the outside world.

Yet, many poor women in developing countries are unable to access this technology. In Dayoung Lee’s 2009 study “The Impact of Mobile Phones on the Status of Women in India,” she finds that there is a positive correlation between cell phone ownership and greater female autonomy; namely, that female mobile users have greater intolerance for domestic abuse. However, she makes the point that much of the benefits from cell phones are dependent on having access to the cell phones in the first place, writing:

Household ownership of mobile phones does not indicate that women have access to them, or that women own them. Because mobile phones can be carried around, husbands may have more complete control over them than over landline phones. If they take the mobile phone to work, for example, women have no means of taking advantage of it.

This is a key issue in the debate: are the women who most need access to mobile phones getting it? In the poorest areas, cell phones are scarcer than in richer areas, and cost and literacy impove greater barriers to women who tend to be poorer and more likely to be illiterate than men. While we lack any kind of reliable data on access to phones by sex globally, women who are most at risk for domestic abuse or isolation are often the ones who are most likely to be unable to access mobile phones. Similarly, it is often the poorest, most rural women who could most use information about market prices, civil rights, and female health care.

According to Kiss Brian Abraham, this is can lead to a divided female class; based on those who have access to phones and the income to support them, and those who don’t. Kiss Brian Abraham's wrote “The Names in Your Address Book: Are Mobile Phone Networks Effective in Advocating for Women’s Rights in Zambia?”, chapter nine of the book "African Women and ICTs: Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment" (edited by Ineke Buskens and Anne Webb). She writes:

Over a period of time, low-income-earning women who are part of the women’s empowerment mobile-phone-sustained virtual network begin to lose their ‘voice’. They become silent listeners and simply recipients of texts and alerts from more financially empowered members. They become the mobile phone virtual network’s ‘lower classes’.

Strides are being made in equalizing woman’s educational opportunities, but poverty and illiteracy can be huge obstacles to women trying to benefit from mobile opportunities. Kiss Brian Abraham expands on this noting the role that finances and education play in determining whether a user can take advantage of mobile opportunities:

Adequate income, then, is a means to capabilities, and the cost of using mobile phones reduces the abilities of poor users since their financial resources diminish with every purchase of call units. It is critical to note that the effectiveness of mobile phone advocacy is reliant on constant communication, which demands constant purchase of call units.

In reality, for the poor virtual network member with capability inadequacy, the purchase of call units risks being a further addition to their poverty. Mobile-phone-sustained virtual networks that are used in advocacy for women’s empowerment cannot serve this purpose with the involvement of economically disempowered women unless measures are taken to deliberately empower these women economically.

For the ‘poor’, this train of thought thus begins to undermine the concept of ‘freedom’ that is synonymous with mobile phone use, making ‘free mobile phone access’ and ‘free mobile phone communication’ unrealistic and misleading concepts due to the high cost of communication.


While the social divides caused by mobile phones can be serious, in some places, mobile phones can function as clever work-arounds to strict social conventions, allowing women who are comfortable with technology to improve their businesses. For example, in religious Muslim areas, women may be forbidden to speak directly with men. In chapter four of "African Women and ICTs: Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment," Kazanka Comfort and John Dada point out that cell phones can provide a practical solution for female business owners restricted by religious norms in “Women’s Use of Cell Phones to Meet Their Communication Needs: A Study of Rural Women from Northern Nigeria

The local interpretation of the religious requirement of purdah places constraints on the ‘acceptable space’ for a woman; for example, it is necessary for some Muslim women who wish to engage in certain business transactions to have the services of a third party. Access to a mobile phone now makes it possible for these women to have direct links with their business partners without compromising their purdah status.

In cases such as this, female business owners are able to expand their businesses independently of male influence. Other effects of cell phones on women include safer and less expensive ways to receive remittances via m-payments; easier access to money without reliance on banks can free users to use money with greater security and how they see fit. In a case study from Africa, access to mobile phones changed the way female farmers worked, giving them better access to market rates and a wider audience to whom to sell.

More examples of potential good for women in the mobile market can be found in the health and advocacy fields. Arul Chib's case study "The Aceh Besar Midwives with Mobile Phones Program: Design and Evaluation Perspectives using the Information and Communication Technologies for Healthcare Model" found that midwives with mobile phones were more likely to turn to medical care providers for help and information and more likely to stay in contact with their charges. In India, ZMQ Software Systems runs a program that provides women with pre-natal health information via SMS. Take Back the Tech uses ICTs to fight harassment, violence, and bullying against women. UNICEF and other health organizations focused on maternal health are making strides in increasing access and services to women through mobile technology.

Mobile phones have had a marked effect on the world. As the technology continues to evolve and penetrate into more areas of the world, there will be adjustments. Thanks to cell phones, many women in developing countries may receive social, educational, and financial opportunities through their mobiles. However, mobile phones are not a panacea for alleviating poverty, sexism, or other gender disparities. The mere existence of a phone in a rural home or community does not mean that the women there will have access to the opportunities promised.

Anne-Ryan Heatwole is a writer for

Photo credit: Simone D. McCourtie for World Bank

More than one Truth

I enjoyed both the post and the comment, as it shows how different and complementary our experiences and insights are when it comes to gender and poverty alleviation.

In our own experience, our organisation have found more than one reality or truth - the existance of mobile phones in the market or in the household (indeed!) do not guarentee womens' access or development, but also that womens' access to mobiles do facilitate development when the enabling environment exists to use it freely. Like many technologies and tools, it is not the existence of it, nor the access to it that lead to impact, but the ability to co-design and use it freely in a conducive cultural and learning environment.

We tend to focus on the physical instruments and the tangible, measurable deliverables when we look at impact and poverty alleviation - and yet, it is intangible components without buttons and handheld pieces that will be able to say the most to us. I here agree 100% with Jane's comments above that conditions (the environment) need to be right for any technology to be effective. Also, we should pay a lot of attention to indigenous solutions when we design. In Africa, we often put the cart in front the horse and then we think the horse is not able to move.

Thanks and some thoughts

Hi Anne-Ryan, 

Thanks for your very informative post – you are absolutely right that women are often late adopters of mobile technology and that mobile phones alone are not sufficient to solve the world’s biggest problems.    

But we need to recognize that in many cases, increasing women’s access to mobile phones serves as a catalyst to alleviating poverty among women and reducing gender inequality. You’ve already cited the mBanking revolution sweeping Africa; two other important positive examples include Village Pay Phone initiatives worldwide and outsourced ICT jobs throughout Asia.  What’s more, we’ve even seen other technologies, like the Pill, change norms around women’s roles in the household, school and work.  

Ongoing research at the International Center for Research on Women shows that women benefit from technology innovations – such as the Pill and mobile phones – when the conditions are right ( It happens when:

  • Strategic partnerships connect the public and private sector: NGOs can reach the most vulnerable women while corporations can create innovative products, services and pricing mechanisms.
  • Women are involved in the technology design and distribution process: Listening to women ensures technology products, services and tools meet women’s needs.
  • Women are trained to use, maintain and manage technologies: Women face lower technological and basic literacy than men, but hands-on “learning by doing” training can overcome low literacy.

It is not impossible to empower women, create economic stability and change gender norms through the use of mobile technology. But we must use innovative strategies to reach poor women, address their needs and evaluate how to better engage them in the future. With intentional action to connect women to technology, even the most vulnerable can experience the improved health and economic status that all the hype is about.   

I would love to keep this dialogue open; we have a lot of ongoing research on this topic and we are always looking for ways to learn from others in the field.

Janna McDougall

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