Increasing Mobile Phone Ownership for Women in Developing Countries

In an age of increasing technological advancement, cell phones have become staple products in developed countries. But throughout the developing world, cell phone ownership is low and in many countries, women are much less likely to own a cell phone than men. According to a GSMA report, the gender gap in cell phone ownership is 25% which indicates that women are much less likely to own a cell phone. In order to combat this disparity as well as to empower women, the mWomen Program, which was launched at the State Department, seeks to “(a) increase access to mobile phones for 150 million women who live at the base of the pyramid over the next three years and (b) leverage the mobile channel to improve the socio-economic status of women across the developing world” (

To increase cell phone ownership among women, the mWomen program carries out and supports three different types of activities. First, the program seeks to provide technical assistance with activities centered on trying to eliminate the gender gap and charting the progress toward completing this goal. Second, value-added services are rendered in which Multi National Organizations (MNOs) showcase the benefits of mobile phone technology such as improvements in health, education, and financial opportunities for women. Lastly, the challenge fund exists to provide funding for MNOs which are finding ways to reduce the gender gap through programs such as creating products which target low income women. By carrying out each of these activities, mWomen hopes to provide more women with cell phones.

The mWomen Program seeks to increase cell phone ownership, but the question that needs to first be asked is whether or not this is actually in the best interest of women and if this will truly enable and empower them. To answer this question, Dayoung Lee studied the uptake of cell phones by women in India. India is one of leading nations in cell phone ownership with the number cell phones surpassing landline phones by 2004 and there are roughly 6 million new subscriptions per month. Therefore, India serves as a great case study in determining the linkage between cell phone ownership and women’s empowerment. In order to identify if women’s empowerment increases with cell phone ownership, Lee uses survey data from India’s National Family Health Survey which addresses the following areas: fertility, family planning, mortality, maternal and child health, and cell phone ownership. The following are used as women’s empowerment indicators: reported domestic violence, reported autonomy, reported son and total children preferences, and reported economic independence.

Lee finds that as cell phone ownership increases, women are less tolerable towards domestic violence and husband’s control issues. Even more interesting is the fact that as cell phone ownership among men increase, tolerance for domestic violence decrease as well. Although views toward domestic violence are changing, this is not strong evidence that cell phone ownership encourages female empowerment. However, this question is answered when looking at the autonomy levels of women. As cell phone ownership increased in the Indian population, women’s decision making power increased in regards to spending family money and they were more likely to travel without permission from their husband. However, there were no significant effects on son preference or the desired number of children women wanted to have. The results from this study indicate that increasing cell phone ownership will lead to women’s empowerment.

Not only does cell phone ownership contribute to women’s empowerment in the home through money decisions and travel, it can also increase literacy rates among women. In Pakistan, a group of 250 girls who had recently completed a basic literacy course, were provided cell phones. The girls received up to 6 messages per day in their native language of Urdu on various subjects including religion, nutrition, and health. After reading the message and practicing writing the message out, the girls were then expected to respond to the text their teacher sent. Results from this program indicate that retention of basic literacy skills dramatically increased. Initially 56% of the families were against the idea of cell phones for their daughters. But by the end, 87% of families were satisfied with the results of the program. This dramatic increase in approval indicates that families can be persuaded to see the benefits of cell phones which can in turn promote literacy.

These two studies indicate that increasing cell phone ownership empowers women through extending greater decision making power and influencing literacy rates. Therefore, trying to increase cell phone ownership and decrease the gender gap in developing nations, through programs like mWomen, is important and should be regarded as essential toward increasing female empowerment.

GSMA. 2010. Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity A study on mobile phone gender gap in low and middle-income countries. March 23, 2011).

Lee, Dayoung. 2009. The Impact of Mobile Phones on the Status of Women in India. Stanford University. May. (accessed March 23, 2011).

mWomen Program: and

—by JH

3 thoughts on “Increasing Mobile Phone Ownership for Women in Developing Countries

  1. GoodReason says:

    I found it very interesting that the women with cell phones were not as tolerant of domestic abuse! This demonstrates a very important point–if you convince a woman feel she has options, the whole family dynamic changes for the better–and hopefully that of the society as well!

  2. Victoria Fox says:

    What a creative avenue for literacy programs. I know there has been speculation that mobile phones will replace computers for students, but it’s interesting that they use it for basic literacy education. I think they’re hoping cell phones will do for education what they’ve done for online banking. I think greater literacy among women would be the biggest change cell phones could make in women’s empowerment. Before this I had only looked at one study on this topic (see first link below), I guess I’ll have to look at more!

    Also, cell phone use is increasing among teens and young adults in developing countries. I wonder if that will generate future movements like Egypt’s? Can you imagine women’s rights protests coordinated through text message? I think the interplay of technology and human interaction in Egypt is so interesting, I wonder how it will play out in other areas. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about this in October (second link below) – interesting timing, don’t you think?



  3. arigoose says:

    I love the correlation you made between women’s cell phone ownership and domestic abuse! I guess if you have a friend to call and talk to about it it makes it less acceptable. I know that when I confide serious things to my friends their advice and outlook really emphasizes the wrongs in the situation and helps me get out of it

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