Last updated on August 7, 2020
As part of the Working Papers series, Dr. Lina Sonne, Inblick Innovation Advisory, has authored our latest research paper titled “What Do We Know About Women’s Mobile Phone Access & Use? A review of evidence“
While phone access and ownership has been rising rapidly in India in recent years, women lag behind on access, usage and ownership of mobiles. We undertook a review of literature on how low-income women in India and in other countries in the Global South access and use mobile phones. We find that there is limited published research on women’s access and use of mobile phones in India, and significant research gaps. Overall, women have less access to phones, generally have access to a shared phone or a phone with less features. Women use fewer features on the phone as compared to men. Women’s use of mobile phones is constrained in relation to where they use the phone, for how long and for what purpose. Women suffer from barriers to using mobile phones including socio-cultural notions of women not needing a phone, or women potentially compromising family honour, due to which women both self-censor and are frequently monitored in their phone usage.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important the mobile phone is in India. Mobile phones have become vital to how we communicate when we can no longer meet, to find out about the news, to seek out entertainment and learn new skills, to increasingly order goods and groceries, and to report emergencies. We are likely to increasingly digitise our world, including access to finance and other essential services even after we come out of this crisis.
Mobile phone access and ownership has been rising steadily since cheap mobile phones became more readily available in the 2000’s. The most significant recent trigger for increased phone access and usage, and in particular usage of data has been the launch of Jio mobile phone operator in September 2016, and with the recent expansion of investments and announcement of increased digitisation of local shops and services via the Jio platform, the rise in ownership and use is set to continue.
However, while availability and access to phones have increased overall, women significantly lag behind on access, usage and ownership of mobile phones in India. According to GSMA (2019), the Indian gender gap in mobile phone ownership was 26% while the gender gap in use of mobile internet use was a staggering 56% in 2018.[i] In fact, India and the rest of South Asia has the largest gender gap in mobile phone access and use in the world.
To unpack the gender gap and better understand what the lack of access and usage means for women, we undertook an analytical review of extant literature. We reviewed literature on how low-income women in India and in other countries in the Global South access and use mobile phones, including for financial activity; what the barriers to access and usage are; and what dimensions lead to exclusion.
We found that there is very limited published research on women’s access and use of mobile phones in India, and related barriers. However, overall, the review shows that women in India have less access to phones and generally have access to a shared phone or a phone with less features. Women use fewer features on the phone as compared to men, and are more constrained in the geographic location they may use the phone, for how long and for what purpose. Furthermore, women suffer from barriers to usage including socio-cultural notions of women not needing a phone, or women potentially compromising family honour through errant phone use. For these reasons, women both self-censor, and are frequently monitored in their phone usage.
There was no literature on women’s use of digital financial services through mobile phones in India. However, evidence from studies in several African countries (primarily using M-Pesa) suggest that women often struggle to access all features on the phone, and some of the services of digital financial inclusion. Phones are not designed intuitively for women, and womens’ lower level of literacy and digital literacy makes it harder for women to negotiate digital finance through the mobile, including remembering passwords and how to navigate apps.
While this review was undertaken prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, we expect that the crisis will exacerbate the inequalities in access and use evident in this review. At the same time, it may spur further expansion of digital services, including financial inclusion, to allow for social distancing. Without more research and evidence, it will be hard to know what the impact will be on women and women’s already lagging access and usage of mobile phones.
Overall, there are huge gaps in research on women’s access and use of mobile phones in India – for digital financial inclusion, and more generally. There are therefore a lot of opportunities for researchers in India to engage with. Three important research areas stand out.
First, we need to better understand how women in different contexts access and use their phones. This includes the kind of features they most use, and how their use is determined based on constraints in every-day life. What barriers do women face and how do women negotiate those barriers?
Second, we require more insight into what good phone and app features look like for low-income women in India. How can phones and apps be made user-friendly, especially in contexts where literacy may be limited?
Third, with respect to digital financial inclusion, the research gap is vast. More and better data on how women may use digital finance and what constraints, physical and socio-cultural, they will face are priority areas.
Without more research and consideration for how women’s access and use of mobile phones influence their ability to access and use services, we risk further excluding women from financial inclusion as well as the digitisation drive in general, increasing the gendered digital divide.
The full paper is available here.
*This paper presents independent research commissioned by the Future of Finance Initiative at Dvara Research in furtherance of the Initiative’s research agenda. The Initiative’s work focusses on the impacts of digitisation and technological innovation in Indian finance, leading from the low-income consumer perspective on these issues.
[i] GSMA (2019) Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019. GSMA Report.