Mobiles for Mobilization: can ICT Innovations Empower Women?

By Shruti Sheopurkar

In this month’s story from the field, Research Associate Shruti Sheopurkar shares field notes and insights from a series of focus group discussions with women on the use of ICT and mobile phones.

Twenty kilometers outside Raipur city in the village of Munrethi, Kavita, a masonry worker, welcomes us into her home with warm cups of tea. As we settle down on the chatai in her front yard, we are joined by seven women from her Self Help Group. Amidst conversations about their day to day routine, we get a glimpse into their daily life and their experiences (or lack of) with mobile phones.

“Masonry and painting jobs are easy to come by, a lot of construction is happening in Raipur now”, says Kavita. Working hours at end in the sun and having to come back to the kitchen is exhausting. But this is the only work available to us.”

As part of a study to understand the scope of digital technology in fostering women’s labour force participation, we spoke to women about their livelihood activities, aspirations and experiences with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

In recent times, the merits of ICTs, and access to mobile phones in particular, have been widely recognized. Service providers are increasingly competing to deploy new products and services and capture larger market shares in rural and urban geographies. While the jury is still out on who is winning the ‘race to 5G’ and what is the next ‘big thing’ for smart-phone users, a significantly large section of the Indian population- close to 76 percent, remains indifferent to any activity in this space.

From Accessibility to Relevance

As our discussion progresses, we learn that while nearly every woman in the group has a smartphone in her household, hardly any have a smartphone of their own. Few of the women own a feature phone, while the rest do not own a phone. This is not news to us. Women in low- and middle-income countries are, on average, 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. Even when women own mobile phones, there is a significant gender gap in usage, particularly for more services such as mobile internet (GSMA, 2018).

However, this gap is not about accessibility alone. After cost, the lack of perceived relevance of digital technology in the daily lives of these women appears to be a key barrier in smartphone adoption and use. “There is no place for a smart-phone in my life,” says Rekha. “The kids use it to watch videos and play games. Occasionally, when my sister calls, they put me on the phone, so I can speak to her. Apart from that what would I do with a mobile? It’s just not made for me!.” Her conviction gives the group of otherwise reticent women the confidence to share their views. We learn that the women know how to operate televisions, can read and write in Hindi, and participate in some or the other form of organized saving and financial planning. However, the majority of them feel that mobile phones are unnecessary and bear no relevance in their lives and they seem reluctant about learning how to use a smart phone.

Rekha’s unequivocal take on mobile phones makes us curious. To understand how consistent these attitudes of technology averseness are, we ask the same set of questions to a group of women in peri-urban Raipur. Of the eight respondents in this group, only one expresses a strong interest in learning how to use a smartphone, mainly to conduct financial transactions. Geeta, another group member, does not agree, and is of the view that owning a smart phone would not add value to her life in any way. “I don’t have time or money to waste on a complicated phone”, she says.

Bridging the Gap

As tech service providers strive to bring hi-speed internet and sophisticated devices to an increasing section of the population, they must acknowledge that accessibility is only part of the equation. The women we spoke to have limited purchasing power, do not completely understand the technology, have little free time to learn or use this technology, and hence require handholding and support. At the same time, service providers must step into the shoes of women and design products and services that offer a compelling value proposition, are affordable, and easy to use.

While further research is needed to understand these barriers to mobile phone adoption and use, it is equally important to have a nuanced conversation about the perceived utility and costs associated with mobile phone adoption and use from a gendered lens. As mobile phones increasingly become an important tool for connecting people with information, services and opportunities that can improve their well-being, it is vital to address the mobile gender gap. Else, we risk creating a vicious cycle of exclusion.

Shruti is a Research Associate at LEAD and works on research related to digital finance, labour, and social networks.