Mobiles for Women. Part 1: The Good.

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on May 11, 2011

A village in India last year banned unmarried women from using mobile phones for fear they would arrange forbidden marriages. The village council suspected young men and women were secretly calling one another to arrange to elope. Meanwhile, unmarried men could use mobile phones under parental supervision.

As mobile penetration increases across the developing world, the entry of mobile phones in the hands of women causes reactions. In many cases, mobile phone ownership empowers women in myriad ways: economic gains, increased access to information, greater autonomy and social empowerment, and a greater sense of security and safety.

But, there is a darker side. Targeting women with mobile phones can cause changes in gender dynamics and family expenditures and may relate to increases in domestic violence, invasion of privacy, or control by a male partner.

This article will look at the pros and cons of targeting women with mobiles in the developing world. Part One will highlight the current landscape and identify some of the benefits of mobile tech for women. It also includes a brief discussion on some the challenges and barriers. Part Two of this series gets at the darker side and identifies some of the potential dangers in targeting women with mobiles.

Mobiles and Women: The Landscape

There are reasons why mobiles are emerging as a tool to empower women. A recent article suggests that, “the emergence of mobile technologies and social networks is placing power in the hands of women, as they leapfrog traditional communications infrastructures with a minimum of investment, making the networks easier, more widely accessible and less expensive to build out.”

Tech in the hands of women have been correlated with changes in asset ownership, spending decisions, negotiation power withing a household, and changes in household dynamic. In a study on mobile phones and poverty reduction in Uganda, Kathleen Diga, a researcher on mobile tech and women, writes that, “ultimately, the mobile phone is a tool that enables citizens to communicate with family and friends, to save on transport costs, to identify and take advantage of economic opportunities and to react immediately to mitigate shocks and vulnerable situations.”

A study that was part of the pan-African project Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment (GRACE) looks at the use of mobile phones by women in their pursuit of sustainable micro-enterprises in Kenya. It finds that mobiles increase perceptions of confidence among women and increase women’s economic activities.

People and organizations around the world recognize the potential of mobile technology in development and are creating their own "mWomen" projects across multiple sectors: health, finance, media, democratic participation, empowerment, human rights. In an e-mail to, Trina DasGupta, mWomen Programme Director for the GSMA Development Fund, highlights several examples of mobile-based projects that are proving beneficial to women in business. In India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) uses mobile phones to improve women’s bargaining power and increase their incomes. Each day, SEWA sends agricultural workers SMS messages with commodity prices so they can determine when and where to get the best price for their produce.

In rural Tamil Nadu, mobile provider Uninor enables female entrepreneurs to deliver ICT training to other women in the community. The Hand in Hand Citizen Centres empower local women to improve their income and results show that it is succeeding. (Watch success story interviews here and here.) In addition, initiatives like the GSMA mWomen program and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women also tap into this potential of mobiles for women in the developing world.

Mobiles for Women: The Good

There are many potential benefits and opportunities in targeting women in the developing world with mobile phones and mobile-based projects. These include economic gains, increased access to information, greater autonomy, social empowerment, and a greater sense of security and safety.

Economic gains

A woman who built an international herbal tea empire in Bangladesh (and one that employs 1500 female farmers) credits much of her success to mobile technology:

My mobile phone has helped so much with the business - it is absolutely crucial for distribution and marketing," Ms Talukder says over a cup of her signature Tulsi, or Holy Basil, tea in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. "I don't have an office or showroom, so people just ring me on the mobile to place orders.

Stories like this are not rare. Across the developing world mobile phones contribute to economic gains for women. DasGupta writes (and draws from Women & Mobile research) that the benefits of women’s ownership of mobile phones included that 41 percent had increased their income generating opportunities.

A study of micro-enterprises in Kenya finds that cell phones have impacted micro‐enterprises, especially those owned by women. Mobiles increase perceptions of confidence and assist in increasing women’s economic activities. The study finds that mobile phones improve business efficiency through the the use of add‐ons such as the mobile calendar, calculator, and alarm. Women entrepreneurs also reported a high sense of control of their business as well as in personal and domestic life.

At the same time, this Kenyan study finds that mobile technology led to an increased efficiency in the work process, but not in effectiveness in addressing the gender divide.

This finding is supported by Diga’s research in rural Uganda. She writes: “While gender inequality through exacerbated asset control and mobile phone inexperience drive further digital divide in this village, the proliferation of small business development encourages phone ownership for women.” Diga also finds that women who attempted to contribute to the household income with their own business were more likely to have a mobile phone. Some other findings from the study include:

  • Women who purchased their mobile through business profits felt more ownership of their phone than those with partner-purchased mobiles.
  • Small businesses for women have improved mobile phone ownership for the women within the households in Katote.
  • Women who started small businesses in Katote were able to justify their personal mobile phone use or purchase and felt genuine phone ownership than those with phones purchased by husbands.

Access to Information

Mobiles provide an avenue for women to gain education and access to information. Geeta Shroff, coauthor of a study that presents a design model for empowering low income women in India, said that a mobile phone in the hands of a woman can help her, for example, understand what kind of reduced fee programs or educational incentives there might be for getting a daughter into school. “If they have a cell phone they know where to go and how to get in touch with a staff member, government or social worker and get the right information,” Shroff said.

And access to information via mobile may have a ripple effect on the rest of the household. Shroff said, “if you educate the woman, you are basically educating the family. If you teach a woman how to use technology or mobiles, it can impact the children and other members of the family.”

Access to or ownership of a mobile phone can also help a woman feel more autonomous. DasGupta said that GSMA research showed that 85 percent of women with a phone felt more independent.

Independence can come in the form of alternative avenues to information and events. “We also found that sometimes women are not allowed to attend public events in their villages -- more so with rural women than in urban communities -- even for parent teacher conferences or meetings,” Shroff said. “Usually male members of the families will go and represent the family and the women will not be allowed to leave the house.” But if the woman has a mobile phone, it would allow them to get information from the comfort of their own homes. In this way, Shroff said, traditional boundaries are respected while also giving women the independence and access to crucial information.

Social Empowerment

In Senegal, women’s interest in learning how to send SMS messages drives increased demand for literacy and numeracy. In Mexico, women use the anonymity of mobile phones to build virtual support groups for HIV patients. From income to education to health, access to mobile phones can result in greater social empowerment for women as they gain new asset responsibilities.

The GRACE project study in Kenya looks at the role of mobiles in women’s social empowerment and quality of life enhancements. The study finds that women view the mobile phone as an “empowerment tool for life” in terms of social growth. It allowed them to address issues that concerned themselves, their families, and their work, although the mobile phone and innovation alone “does not necessarily guarantee empowerment for women” (more on this in Part Two, the darker side of mobiles for women).

Socially, mobile phones can help women feel more connected to others. The GSMA Women & Mobile study found that the benefits of women’s ownership of mobile phones included 93 percent felt more connected to family and friends.

Greater Sense of Security and Safety

Finally, mobiles targeted toward women can result in a greater sense of security and safety. DasGupta writes in an e-mail to that the benefits of women’s ownership of mobile phones included 93 percent of women surveyed feeling safer because of their mobile phone.

From experiences in the field, Shroff said that many women use mobile phones in their role as caretaker for the family, including emergencies such as a call to the hospital. “If the woman is comfortable with technology she can use the phone to make appointments and take family members to the right doctor.”

Barriers and limitations to access

The main point of this article is to present the pros and cons of targeting women with mobiles. But it is also apropos to mention here the key barriers and limitations facing women.  

GSMA research identifies four significant barriers to women’s ability to own mobile phones:

  • The total cost of ownership (including price of handset, services, and charging)
  • Women’s own fear of being able to master technology
  • A perceived lack of need for mobile phones
  • Cultural barriers, including traditional attitudes toward women’s ownership of productive assets

Other studies find similar barriers. In regards to the high cost of ownership, the GRACE project study found that this was "a major concern for most of the women, leading to frustration, especially since most of them have been sensitized enough to use the tool."  

As part of the study in Katote, Uganda, Diga looks at how mobile phones have been accepted into the community. She finds that mobile phones and mobile phone services appeared to be readily available. “Women were also seen with mobile phones, some stating that they purchased on their own phones, whilst others had their phones purchased for them by their husbands. Of the six households interviewed, the widowed grandmother was the only woman with her own mobile phones. … However, in the focus group discussion with a women’s informal savings group, almost all the participants had mobiles either purchased by themselves or by their husbands.”

In regards to technology comfort level, according to the study in Kenya, “most of the women mentioned using the most basic functions and services on their cell phones.  If they wanted to explore other functions they depended on their spouse or a male family member for training.”  

Shroff said that although many people in the developing world can get scared of technology, “One of the pros of approaching these communities and offering them technology is that they get a chance to overcome that feeling of being scared of technology and they can explore it in their own free time.” In this way, a  woman gets a chance to be independent in her use of technology and doesn’t need an intermediary.  

Of the cultural barrier to mobile phones, DasGupta writes, “In societies where gender inequality is still a major concern, women’s access to money, education, suffrage, health care – in short, their freedom and independence – have been limited through deeply ingrained gender discrimination.”

Look for Part Two: Mobiles for Women, The Darker Side, which we will post at the end of this week. 

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