Is using a mobile phone a symbol of independence? Is it a simple tool of communication or a medium that provides rights? Why do women lag behind among those who use cellphones? Why do women have to take permission from men before buying a mobile phone that connects them to the world out there? The answers to these questions may seem to be self-evident to many people, but remain relevant as ground reality in much of India.
Some recent news reports reveal the bizarre restrictions on women using mobile phones in rural India. In Bihar’s Phulwaria— the ancestral village of Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad— the panchayat has imposed a blanket ban on the use of mobile phones by women. In Rajasthan’s Garariya village in Barmer district, the panchayat has called the mobile phone a social evil and banned its use by Muslim women. In Bihar’s Sunderbadi village in Kochadham block of Kishanganj district, the panchayat imposed a penalty of Rs.10,000 if an unmarried girl was found using a mobile phone. Interestingly, for married women, the fine would be Rs.2,000.
While these are undoubtedly extreme cases, they are also a clear indication that the access to information and devices or tools that could bring communication and information in the hands of women scares many men. It is yet another barrier that Indian women have to fight. This is not just a matter of owning a mobile device but a matter of freedom and empowerment, which society feels should only be the priority or privilege of males.
Connected Women 2015, a report by GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association), an international grouping of mobile operators and related companies, offers insights that reflect the gender gap in mobile usage. It also bares the social and behavioural practices in India, South Asia and all over the world. Although India is the second-largest telecom market globally, unique subscriber penetration is still just 36%. Out of the total 612 million female population, only 28% own a mobile phone as against 43% men. The gender gap of mobile ownership is as much as 114 million.
“Gender disparities in India are relatively strong and pervasive and affect women’s access and use of mobile. Limited resources compounded with social norms often mean that the men of the household are the first to get a mobile phone. Many women also only borrow mobile phones,” the report says. “Lower access levels, monitoring of usage, and lower literacy levels all affect women’s ability to use mobile.”
It is interesting to find out the barriers that separate women from mobile phones (see chart). Literacy has a tremendous ripple effect, making more women go for mobile phones. Literate women are more confident, less insecure and less likely to compromise on a basic convenience. For example, “55% of female mobile phone owners in India have never sent an SMS as against 33% males,” says the report. The same figure climbs to 68% when it comes to female mobile owners in economically poorer sections of the society.
What is true for India is also true for all of South Asia. Among all the regions of the world, South Asia is the weakest in cellphone penetration among women. There are 594 million women in South Asia, or about 72% of all women in the region, who still do not possess a mobile. If the gender gap of mobile users in South Asia could be bridged in the next five years, it could fetch as much as $23 billion in revenue by 2020, says the report.
We all know that mobile phone usage is rapidly increasing, and people at all economic levels are adopting it, yet 3 billion people of the world do not own mobile phones, of which 1.7 billion are women. “In every country, at least 89% said mobile phones help them stay in touch with friends and family; at least 74% said it saves time; at least 68% reported that they feel safer with a mobile phone; at least 58% said they felt more autonomous and independent; and at least 60% of women in 10 out of 11 countries said mobile phone ownership saves them money,” the report finds.
Ironically, what is true for mobile phones is not so true when it comes to the use of computers and Internet by women. I do not have hard data, but I find that the girls and women who come to the government’s community information resource centres for digital literacy and access to Internet do not own a mobile, but enjoy Internet access and social media as if it is their basic right. Invariably, all the girls get on to Facebook to make their profile page on day one, but never use their own photos. Instead, they use some glamorous photo of an actress or a model or a celebrity.
Paradoxically, these girls are encouraged by their elders and family to go for digital literacy or computer classes or Internet learning without any hesitation because they see it as education. Although mobile phones may still provide all forms of digital literacy, they are primarily seen as a tool that liberate women from the shackles of men, and it is because of them that it may take many more years for all of our women to own a mobile phone.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of the working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar