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Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity: A Study on the Mobile Phone Gender Gap in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

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Publication Date

February 1, 2010

This study from the GSMA Development Fund, the Cherie Blair Foundation, and Vital Wave Consulting analyses data, surveys, a market sizing model, and expert interviews to report on mobile phone use among women in low- and middle-income countries.

The study finds that women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts, a figure that rises slightly in the Middle East and Africa and rises to 37% in South Asia. Forecasting revenue opportunities for mobile companies, the study states that 2/3 of the remaining market population is female. Factors influencing ownership are: household income, urban/rural location, age, occupation, and education level. Barriers to mobile ownership include: cost of a handset; cost of monthly service; lack of family/spouse permission; and fear of the technology, among others. A chart on page 9 places women in demographic categories of work, education, and location and lists phone usage, including text messaging and payment for service characteristics.

Case studies include a female literacy programme in Pakistan, run by Mobilink, in which 6 messages a day were sent to girls via SMS text messaging in the local language on a variety of topics, including religion, health, and nutrition. The girls were expected to practise reading and writing down the messages and responding to their teachers via SMS. “Monthly assessments of participants learning gains were conducted to assess impact. While 56% of learners and their families initially maintained negative feelings toward the programme, 87% were satisfied with its results by the end. Families also appreciated the greater sense of security that being able to contact their daughters or wives provided. Users can pay US$6 to buy their phones at the end of the programme and continue receiving text messages, and [partners] Mobilink, UNESCO, and Bunyad plan to expand the programme further.” Another case study is of the Roshan network in Afghanistan, which focused a marketing campaign, the Aali for Mother Campaign, that focused on women using culturally significant strategies, e.g. focusing on women as needing to connect with family members by phone and husbands as “gift bearers”, or those who might empower women’s phone use.

Positive outcomes and feelings associated with mobile phone ownership include: having an increased income; and feeling safer, more connected to family and friends, and more independent. A case study from Mexico by SHM, a United Kingdom-based consultancy, shows the use of text messaging among HIV/AIDS positive people divided into support groups. “By the end of the three-month pilot, group members had sent an average of 80,000 text messages per month. SHM clearly proved their concept, as programme participants reported greatly improved emotional states and better compliance with their drug regimens.” Another case study from Kosovo describes the mobilisation of women via mobile phone over a 48-hour period to participate in a constitutional forum. Another marketing example, this one from Bangladesh, demonstrates that in a competitive environment, marketing to women with specific discounts and packages including store discounts and value-added services can attract women as customers. The lesson cited is the following: “all successful promotions begin by understanding the cultural differences and communication needs of the ... audience.”

The study focused on women “at the base of the pyramid” or low-income women. The case study of Wougnet illustrates that combining mobile phones with traditional information channels boosts the effectiveness of both. The initiative, supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP EU (CTA) and Hivos, equipped rural women’s farming groups with a mobile phone and a radio cassette player which would allow women to participate in a popular local agricultural radio show, communicate with agricultural extension workers, and share information with each other. Another study focused on the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of 1.1 million women in Gudjarat, India. SEWA provides its agricultural members with a notice board for posting prices of various markets and an interactive voice response (IVR) system for receiving the information by phone, regardless of literacy level, so that they can profit from the marketing information.

Recommendations and next steps include the following:

  • For the mobile industry
    1. Specifically address women in segmentation strategies and marketing tactics
    2. Position the phone as a life-enhancing and income-generating tool
    3. Leverage alternative financing mechanisms and channels
  • For the development community
    1. Leverage alternative financing mechanisms and channels
    2. Promote the mobile phone as an effective development tool that creates education, health, employment, banking, and business opportunities
    3. Help identify culturally relevant and acceptable ways of promoting mobile phone ownership amongst women
  • For policymakers
    1. Shift the tax burden away from the economically poorest in society of which women are the majority
    2. Create incentives for the development of mobile services
  • For all stakeholders
    1. Collaborate for maximum impact
    2. Designate high-profile champions of mobile phones for women
    3. Conduct further research to advance understanding of women and mobile phones, including on the following subjects: aspects of independence for women offered by mobile phone use; direct and indirect links between phone ownership and economic improvements for the family; changes in perceived value of the individual’s ownership of a phone over time; differences in male and female phone usage patterns and behaviours in low- and middle-income countries; and ways that phones can benefit women in locally specific contexts.
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Global Health Weekly Update, October 12 2010.

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