Development and Globalization: Facts and Figures2016 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Target 5.b: Women empowerment through ICT

Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.

The Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDG) has proposed using The proportion of individuals who own a mobile telephone, by sex as the indicator to measure progress towards this target. Unfortunately, data to populate this indicator are not currently available (the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) started collecting the data in 2015). Some proxy data (World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators) are compiled by ITU. Specifically, the Union compiles three indicators on the use of mobile phones: use of mobile phones by educational attainment, by urban/rural and by age. However, only the latter two indicators are disaggregated by sex and all three indicators have limited country coverage. Furthermore, these indicators focus on use rather than ownership (see Goal 17 target 6). The UNCTAD report Measuring ICT and Gender: An Assessment (UNCTAD, 2014) explains why measuring mobile phone ownership is important:

Over 1.7 billion females in low- and middle income countries do not own mobile phones (GSMA, 2015)

While the importance of using mobile phones is recognized in core ICT indicator HH105.12 (Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, 2016), for many girls and women, particularly in developing countries, ownership of a mobile phone is preferable to simply having access to one through sharing or borrowing. The latter often entails a relationship of dependence and obligations that may be uncomfortable for women, whereas owning a phone allows privacy, convenience and greater security. Other benefits of ownership include acquisition of a unique address through the phone number, which could substitute for an office, a bank account, and/or a means for obtaining microinsurance or finance. It can also help increase economic and professional opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs or the self-employed. While shared phones can frequently involve pressures on girls and women, unfortunately this can also occur with ownership when women need to ask men for assistance in purchasing airtime for their phones. On balance, however, it appears that mobile phone ownership offers greater possibilities of privacy and autonomy than shared usage.

Women on average are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men (GSMA, 2015)

In early twentieth-century England, Virginia Woolf held out for a room of one’s own as the standard of women’s autonomy. In the twenty-first century, the aspiration for a room would most likely be replaced by a mobile phone of one’s own. In view of the cultural difficulties women face if they use mobile phones without owning them, mobile phone ownership can advance gender equality.

Using, but not owning, a mobile phone generally implies sharing the use of the phone of another individual, or a phone that is available for use by the general public (as in the Grameen Bank Village Phone Programme) (Grameen Bank, 2010). However, recent research from Africa indicates that it may not always be possible to share. A survey of mobile phone owners in Kenya indicated that only one quarter shared their phone with someone else, and when it was shared, it was usually with a spouse. In South Africa, nearly four fifths of mobile phone owners said they did not share their phone with anyone (World Bank, 2012). Where sharing does take place, it is nearly always between male owners and female recipients (Blumenstock and Eagle, 2010). Among both men and women, phone sharing tends to be more common in poor and rural areas, and varies in prevalence from country to country. Another recent study from Kenya showed that mobile phone sharing correlated with a scarcity of phones; as the percentage of mobile phone owners increased, instances of sharing decreased (Wesolowski et al., 2012).

Figure 5.5. Global changes in major ICTs, 2001-2015 (Per 100 inhabitants) Download data
Figure 5.6: Bar chart
Source: ITU statistics aggregate data.
Note: ITU estimates.

The presence of a mobile phone in a household is no guarantee that female household members will have access to it. The June 2013 revisions to the core information and communications technology (ICT) household indicators stipulate that those indicators should refer to household ICT devices that are available for use by any member of the household at any time. Operationally however, this is very hard to determine, as cultural gender bias is difficult to establish in an interview. Householders are unlikely to say that boys and men in the house are given preference in accessing ICT, or that sociocultural differences, such as greater workloads for females, constrain girls and women from having equal access to ICT. This pattern undoubtedly holds true for mobile phone access, particularly when cost-per-use is involved.

Since 2001, access to Internet and mobile phone ownership has increased dramatically in most countries around the world (ITU, 2015) (see figure 5.5). In the developing world more affordable handsets are increasingly available. Despite the progress that has been made in recent years, there are still challenges to be overcome to ensure that women are included in an increasingly connected and Internet-enabled world. Mobile phones are important tools for enhancing the lives of women in low- and middle-income countries. Mobile phones can help women feel safe and more connected, save time and money, and access life-enhancing services such as mobile money or potential education and employment opportunities.

Social norms influence women’s access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use.

The Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) Connected Women Programme (2015) estimates that some 1.7 billion women do not own a mobile phone. Two thirds of these live in the South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific. The report also notes that a significant number of unconnected females, over 300 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa (see figure 5.6).

From a gender-gap perspective, the gap in mobile phone ownership between males and females in low- and middle-income countries is estimated to be 14 per cent, but this average masks a greater inequality between male and female phone ownership in many parts of the world. In particular, the findings of the GSMA study indicate that the South Asian region has a particularly high gender gap in mobile ownership (38 per cent). The neighbouring region, East Asia and the Pacific, had the lowest gender gap (3 per cent) - see figure 5.6. The report also notes that wealthier countries (that is, higher per capita gross domestic product) generally have smaller gender gaps in mobile phone ownership.

Figure 5.6. Gender gap in mobile phone ownership and population of unconnected women by region, selected countries, 2015 Download data