The Global Impact of Mobile Phones for Women in Developing Nations

Lorelei Bachman


When women are considered in the development of new technologies, ideally, specific needs should be taken into account at the design phase, which will serve to customize the product.  Efforts to provide women with access to technology in developing nations where travel may be limited may include distribution and training in the home or village rather than the marketplace.  In this light, economic activity can be enhanced by creating new employment positions and furthering existing ones, increasing financial resources that enable women to be self-sufficient.  Furthermore, the benefits of access to technology may improve social and familial relationships as well (ICRW, 2010).


Enter a discussion on the effect of the mobile phone in relation to women across the globe and what benefits and drawbacks this technology brings to their lives.  Furthermore, how this device affects boundaries between home and work as well as obstacles women face in gaining access to mobile phones, gender discrepancies in mobile phone use and how topics such as literacy affect access and usage of new technologies is warranted.


The rapid integration of the mobile phone has resulted in it becoming a tool of everyday life with over 6.8 billion mobile phone accounts worldwide, or about 96% of the population (International Telecommunication Unions, 2013).  While it is often assumed that mobile phones are used primarily for work in actuality only about 24% of usage is directly related to work while 32% is due to leisure activities, 29% for managing home and family responsibilities and a final 15% for other contacts (Wajcman et al, 2008).  Gender differences do exist, with roughly one third of men using their mobile phone for work or study related activities while women cite only 11% with the remaining 89% of usage as social calls (Wajcman et al, 2008).  Regardless of communication type, women are more likely than men to keep in close touch with relatives, indicating that maintaining kinship ties is still a task performed predominantly by women (Moyal, 1992).  In many cases, mobile phone calling may itself be considered a relationship as a marker of intimacy despite geographical location (Giddens, 1991, 1992). 


Using the country of Sri Lanka as the subject of study, authors Handapangoda and Kumara (2013) researched the empowering effect of mobile phones on dependant women in poor areas to understand what effect this technology had on their every day lives.  While other nations had a gradual increase in the amount of mobile phones, Sri Lanka experienced a rapid surge.  Blumenstock and Eagle (2010) state:

Mobile phones are reaching the world’s poor at an amazing rate.  Already, over two thirds of the world’s mobile phones are reaching the world’s poor at an unprecented rate (p. 362).


As an economic and social asset for the poor, mobile phones have become increasingly affordable and as such, are often a substitute for computers.  In regards to women, they have become a specific tool for empowerment. Through features like portability, texting and downloading, women accustomed to subjugation and inferior status are able to increase their autonomy through communication and access to the labour market (Lee, 2009).  Mobile phones have also increased women’s participation in public media and entertainment, eliminating feelings of fear, loneliness and isolation in helping them deal with the confinement and separation from loved ones.  In some cases, mobile phones were found to contribute to generating income among poor housewives giving them a sense of empowerment.  Furthermore, mobile phones have been found to strengthen family ties in difficult times to the extent that women feel an increased support network. 

Household work remains a major barrier for Sri Lankan women, despite the perception of higher literacy rates and social mobility than women residing in other South Asian countries.  The primary role of Sri Lankan women remains that of family caregiver with limited choice of power due to gender inequality.  In this light, the mobile phone holds promise.  Handapangoda and Kumara (2013) describe these benefits in their study beginning with the expansion of social circles and support networks as the foremost benefit.  Unlimited access to the outside world through the Internet not only broadens communication but also serves to expand “Psychological neighbourhoods” as well (Lee, 2009).  Not only were existing social networks strengthened through better contact with friends and family, new contacts were also established.


"My mobile phone is a very useful device for me.  One day, my child got very sick

in the middle of the night.  He kept on crying hard and my husband and I did not

know what to do.  So I immediately called my parents and asked them to come

and help us.  If I didn’t have a mobile phone, I don’t know what I would have

done at that time.  Also, when I have some problem that bothers me, I call my

brother and share it with him in privacy and get his advice.  It really gives me a

sense of relief.  Also, over my mobile, I stay in touch with my old friends more

frequently than before"

(Kamanie, personal communication as cited in

Handapangoda & Kumara, 2013, p. 368).


Given the socio-cultural context that restricted women to their homes in this instance, mobile communication provided emotional support to women in troubled times by opening up communications with loved ones without infringement of privacy. It also increased access to health and emergency services in the community and aided women in keeping track of children and reducing the travel time that once existed for obtaining information. Culturally, face-to-face communication remained important to the women in specific situations such as conversing with religious leaders, inviting people to events or speaking with schoolteachers. 


"My husband is a machine operator, and we live alone in this rented house.  I am

expecting my first baby.  So, having a mobile phone with me is very useful.  I get

appointments with the village midwife over my mobile.  When I feel some change

in my physical condition, I immediately contact her and get advice.  It only takes

a second.  Also, I call my husband, especially when he gets late in returning home. 

With my condition, I cannot go and look for him by myself.  When you think

about the situation in our country today, if a woman gets lost, she can’t ask for

help from everyone.  But if she carries a mobile phone with her, then she is safe

because she can easily call the police or any other source for help.  You can’t

carry a landline with you"

(Rani, personal communication as cited in

Handapangoda and Kumara, 2013, p. 375)


Additionally, certain obstacles existed for a segment of the women who participated in the study.  Because none of the women in the study had partners with consistent employment, fluctuating incomes meant that often sustaining the household was a financial priority over paying for mobile phone usage.  About 20% of spouses controlled their wives usage of mobile phones, keeping the phone with them the majority of the time.  Some women were apprehensive about phones causing friction in the relationship due to unknown callers, outgoing calls and bills (p. 379).  Another obstacle was learning how to use the device.  Gender biases that associate men with technology often served to embarrass women.  Gender stereotyping has traditionally been responsible for marginalizing women in Sri Lanka in addition to technological illiteracy amongst the female population.  However, Handapangoda and Kumara (2013) found that all women surveyed were able to make and receive calls.  A majority could send texts and about 70% could view text messages.  Whereas English is the language of mobile communication on Sri Lankan phones, the simple usage actually improved literacy to the degree where they could send and receive messages in a short time (p. 371).  Others refrained from texting for fear of mistakes and most avoided complex functions.  Women under 35 years of age were most likely to succeed with mobile usage in addition to those who lived in extended family relationships that shared frequent and close contact with family members. 


Worldwide, men constitute the overwhelming majority of technology users.  They also dominate the innovation as designers and creators of products.  As a result, women are often viewed simply as receivers of new technologies and are underrepresented in STEM fields.  This is partially due to a lack of basic education in developing nations and as a result, women comprise the majority of illiterate people worldwide.  In order to build careers around technologies, women need to have the education and skills to develop and use them (Hafkin & Taggart, 2001).  Often, women lack the financial resources that would increase access to the usage, rental or purchase of new technologies.  The laws and customs of many nations relegate the ownership of assets to men and prohibit women from taking out loans that require collateral to set up small businesses (Clancy, 1999). 

In the case of micro and small enterprise (MSE), literature has shown that the use of mobile phones in developing nations is beneficial by reducing costs, facilitating the development of a network of contracts and by increasing productivity and trust (Caceres et al, 2011).  For example, in Lima, Peru where a construction boom has recently taken place, resources abound for the making and selling of furniture.  In the region of Villa El Salvador, numerous businesses are trying to meet the market demand.  As a result, this sector represents an important hub of MSE’s in Peru.  In 2007, data showed that around 6 million microenterprises provide work for about 10 million people or 72% of the economically active population.  These MSE’s operate without the benefits of agglomeration or government support (Caceres et al, 2011). While Peruvian families have traditionally been patriarchal institutions, women have increasingly sought paid work to meet family needs due to transient or absent father figures.  Hence, women exercise considerable authority in respect to property and marketing.

The benefits of mobile phone usage in this instance were specifically noted in vertical relationships, that is to say between producer and consumer or producer and input provider rather then enhanced peer relationships where fierce competition exists.  Enabling new and old clients to call the microentrepeneur to place specific orders being key.    In contrast to landlines, mobile phones were more practical as they are kept on people at all times, enabling quicker contact.  Initial contact was integral in leading to work and contract being established.  Further, contract and details could be exchanged without the requirement of face-to-face meetings.


Between 2000 and 2012, Peru’s mobile phone subscription rate went from 5% to 99% (Loggers, 2014).  A program called Text-to Change began educating people on finance through mobile phones, which sent messages regarding financial advice and payment reminders.  In the first four months of the program, over 25,000 women subscribed to the microcredit system and became able to manage their own finances through text.  Upcoming payment reminders and outstanding credits were some of the benefits of the program for women.  In addition, programs such as Wawanet, which have been developed to aid women in improving their health, are specifically administered by mobile phone usage in Peru.  By using text messages, mothers to be can received customized advice on nutrition and medical concerns during pregnancy to ameliorate the mortality rates of pregnant women (IDB, 2010).


In Africa, huge discrepancies exist between men and women and by some estimates, its financial position today is worse than it was in the 1950’s (Nyamnjoh, 2005).  In the North-West region of Cameroon, the everyday lives and livelihoods of women often involve outdoor market vending and trading.  Formal employment is scarce and as a result, 90% of jobs in this region are informal (Tawah, 2013).  Despite the somewhat high costs of airtime usage, in a regions where Pentecostal Christianity is high, many feel that not only is trade is enhanced but also protected by using religious images and audio clips via mobile which they feel may protect their trade against harmful influences.  Borders are enlarged through mobile phone usage to landlocked countries such as Nigeria and Gabon, where a tremendous amount of food trade occurs.  Stalls and small shops are also used as meeting places for gossip and news.  Speaking mostly broken English, daily survival for women and their families in this region depends on selling and trading enough to provide.  Market trading is often the only available option of uneducated women and excludes texting in cases of illiteracy, however a small portion of vendors do have university degrees.  Regardless, long hours are worked with pride. Another advantage of market trading lies in the fact that women have control over their own incomes.  By 2012, mobile phone subscriptions represented 50% of the population through a primary South African company (Tawah, 2013).  Like Cameroon, in Ghana, mobile phone usage is a major factor in livelihoods and is not relegated to the economic sphere but also intertwines with social and familial relationships for women.


In conclusion, while inequities and gender stereotypes continue to exist regarding women and technology in developing nations, mobile phones have become a tool which may be used for business, as a means to educate and inform women on issues such as health and emergency services, as well as providing much needed social contact and support.  In the context of mobile banking and financial control, the mobile phone can be used to accesses the broader neighborhood of the outside world (Balasubramanian et al, 2010).  While not all new technologies are readily available to women, the mobile phone has rapidly advanced as a method for improving productivity and the quality of the work women do as well as generating new employment opportunities.  Focus groups that outline the specific needs of women in the development of new technologies can streamline marketing to customize the mobile industry for women’s usage.  Where possible, women should be participants in advising, designing and deploying new technologies to developing nations.  Mobile phones have ameliorated the position of village women as owners of devices that give communities connectedness and access to greater resources.  Furthermore, training programs would serve to educate women on how to use the many resources mobile phones provide and provide necessary education, in overcoming inhibitions and gender stereotyping associated with use.



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