Helani Galpaya
Ayesha Zainudeen
Publication Date


This report is the result of research conducted by LIRNEasia and GSMA's Connected Women programme focusing on women's access to and use of mobile phones in Myanmar, where 40% of the population aged 15-65 owned a mobile phone and 30% of the population of the country aged 15-65 have never used a mobile phone (March 2015 figures). According to GSMA data, Myanmar is the third least penetrated mobile market in the world, in part due to the fact that the military that ran the country under various guises for most of the last 50 years tightly controlled media and communications. While mobile phones were not banned outright, ownership costs were so high as to be prohibitively expensive for most Burmese. "The recent introduction of mobile communication in Myanmar is a potentially life-changing prospect for the country, one of the poorest in Southeast Asia."

LIRNEasia's nationally representative baseline survey of the information and communication technology (ICT) needs and usage of over 12,000 respondents in Myanmar showed that women in March 2015 were 29% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. However, there is a negligible difference between the number of men and women who own smartphones (or "touchphones"): men at 65% compared to women at 64%. Together with GSMA's Connected Women programme, LIRNEasia explored the reasons behind this gender gap in ownership through a series of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions held in Yangon (urban) and Pantanaw (rural) among 91 men and women in July 2015. Further questions on mobile internet awareness and use, as well as barriers to use, were explored.

The survey results show a small access and usage gap between women and men, and a wider gap in ownership. Income (or lack of income) is the primary source of the access and ownership gap, in part because handset prices are high compared to income, but more importantly because women's role as the "chief financial officer" of the family makes them put the needs of others before theirs (family members who work outside the home get the first phones in the family, for example). Income is not the only barrier, however. When asked why they do not have a phone, more women (34%) say, "I have no use for it/don't need one" compared to men (25%). Women don't see any benefit of owning their own mobile, beyond leisure and socialising, which for them does not justify the diversion of limited household resources toward. Furthermore, of the women (aged between 15-65) interviewed, almost half stay at home, i.e. do not work. Therefore, even if someone in their household does have a mobile phone, it tends to be absent during the day - usually with the working member of the family, which most often happens to be a male.

The research clearly shows a skills and awareness gap: when women have access to a phone, they exhibit less confidence in using it. Many do not have the skills to get online, or even to operate their mobile beyond calling; some are inhibited to explore the functions of their handset out of fear that the phone could "break". Their low digital literacy leaves them out of the final decision-making stages about phone purchases, and certainly limits their phone usage. Less sophisticated awareness of privacy issues may also be putting them at risk in various social contexts.

The research shows that the decision to get connected is a 2-stage process: firstly, to actually become a mobile owner; and secondly the type of handset/SIM to purchase. The trend seen in Myanmar is that these "big" decisions are dominated by the household head, spouse, elder and any adult children. The practice of consulting with elders is part of their cultural heritage as per the research. Men have a more prominent role in the household based on the religious belief that men can become a Buddha. This ideology is often taken for granted by women and not considered discrimination. Observations showed that women play a role in deciding whether to buy a mobile phone, as they play a key role in household financial decisions. However, they do not typically get involved in the decisions on type of handset/SIM to purchase. This is because they feel they lack product knowledge, and there is a perception that men have more technical expertise in this matter. On the other hand, in predominantly urban areas, young, educated women are typically confidently at par with men in this respect and came across as being mobile brand savvy, and were more often seen participating in the purchase decisions.

Despite the cost barriers, basic phones are perceived as low quality. Even second-hand phones are not usually a consideration. Now, owning a mobile is linked to social status. People buy phones because they are too embarrassed to borrow them or to avoid feeling left out. There is a strong desire to be seen as "modern" and not "outdated", as well as financially capable and independent.

Initial adoption motives were related to voice calls - business and staying in touch with family - or for security or emergency communication. Once connected to data, the usage expands to business communication and coordination. However, the report highlights that the data usage in general is quite low. It is slightly more common for female phone owners (59%) than male phone owners (52%) to use data services. One-third of the mobile owners have used at least one data service. Both men and women want phones that are internet capable because of a high demand for social media apps (e.g. Facebook and Viber) and the growing trend of gaming.

People who have not yet used the internet tend to have a negative perception about it - for example, inappropriate online content and flirting. There is also a question of personal relevance because a large number of people do not know what the internet is. Much of women's understanding of internet is shaped by Facebook and chat applications such as Viber and Bee Talk. Women tend to rely heavily on others, mainly men, to pick up knowledge about the different apps. Women in the rural areas came across as being too shy to ask for help, so they lag behind in the adoption of digital consumerism.

Price sensitivities also play a big role in the decision to adopt new products. In most low-income households, the choice for connecting to data is weighed heavily against other financial priorities such as daily necessities, children’s education, etc.

Some of the key recommendations that can be highlighted from the report are:

  • Network Expansion - "...simply rolling out mobile phone networks is the most powerful development 'intervention' since it allows better communication, increases access to information, increases productivity, allows users to coordinate themselves better, and ultimately improves people's livelihoods. Therefore, actions that facilitate faster network rollout across Myanmar will have a significant positive impact on livelihoods in general. And, if family income increases, more women will be able to afford a phone without having to make trade-offs between owning a phone and their family's welfare. Since the liberalisation of Myanmar's market, mobile operators have made significant investments in rapidly deploying networks and offering voice and 3G services to consumers. To avoid network saturation (given the rapidly growing demand for mobile voice and data services in Myanmar), operators will need cost-oriented and open access to sufficient local and international backhaul fiber optic network, and making sufficient harmonised spectrum available in a predictable and transparent manner."
  • Demand Stimulation - Mobile Operators: Introduce more creative pricing to appeal to women's price sensitivity, call patterns, and daily routines (e.g., creative tariff plans, innovative data packages, low-denomination top-ups, bite-sized or on- demand data pricing, and emergency credit services). This helps better manage airtime and data expenses. Develop a clear and transparent pricing policy including warning for data charges. Continue to design competitively priced and more durable, more affordable smartphones. Handset Manufacturers: Develop easier-to-use versions of popular handset brands. Financial Institutions: Offer mechanisms such as microloans to lower the cost of handsets.
  • Content Development - All the major stakeholders in the ecosystem should work towards creating an enabling environment for local app development, specifically locally relevant and accessible apps for women. "Platforms are needed that enable women to conduct home-based micro-businesses, applications that allow them to find the best prices for everyday household goods, provide microfinancing to start businesses, and offer other content in the local language. App developers should ensure these types of services are accessible even to those with poor digital skills, for example, by incorporating simple design, using graphics, and IVR [interactive voice response]. Creating mobile apps and content does not just happen. It takes a nudge from the government and investment from the private sector—there has to be a real return for the young and tech-savvy to develop content and apps for women, especially poor, unconnected women who have less spending power."
  • Digital Skills and Literacy Development - Mobile operators and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should consider collaboration to create digital skills learning content and facilitate the dissemination of skills training through, for example, grassroot networks. Easily digestible digital skills training (e.g., short video tutorials) could be offered to give people the basic skills to operate a smartphone, search for content, judge the credibility of content from different sources, operate privacy settings, and so on. Making these tutorials easily accessible through the internet can reduce women's reliance on men to gain digital skills. The power of social media can be harnessed to disseminate this content even more. Operators (through their agent networks) need to play a role in increasing digital skills and awareness, for example, by providing incentives to agent networks to improve the digital literacy of their female (and male) customers (i.e., an in-person approach). Government and educators also have a role to play in de-bunking misconceptions about the internet and educating schoolchildren about internet safety and privacy, particularly on social media. Governments and educators should explore the possibilities of incorporating these topics into the national school curricula from a primary level, to ensure girls who may drop out after a few years can also benefit.

This research was co-funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), GSMA, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, and UK Aid of the Department for International Development (DFID), United Kingdom.


"Towards a Networked Economy in Myanmar: Interim technical report", 31 March 2016, sent from from Liane Cerminara of IDRC to The Communication Initiative on September 14 2016; GSMA website and LIRNEasia website, both accessed on September 15 2016; and edits sent from Ayesha Zainudeen and Helani Galpaya to The Communication Initiative via IDRC, November 1 2016. Image caption/credit: Buddhist nuns in Myanmar taking photos of each other, 2015. LIRNEasia