A shocking study has revealed how societal prejudice has been restricting girls’ access to mobile.
The study has revealed how in many developing nations, girls’ access to and use of mobile is dramatically restricted compared to that of boys. Girls are sharing and borrowing phones in secret, putting them disproportionately at risk.
The study, advised by MIT D-Lab, explores vulnerable girls’ access to mobile across 25 countries, including India, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
A non-profit organization, Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation published findings of the first comprehensive global study into how adolescent girls access and use mobile technology.
According to the research, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls, and 1.3 times more likely to own a smartphone, as societal prejudice and other barriers disproportionately restrict girls’ access and usage of mobile.
“Girls’ mobile phone access in developing nations is higher than expected; while only 44% of girls interviewed in the study say they own a phone, more than half (52%) access phones by borrowing one. The study reveals that phones make girls feel more connected (50%), provide access to education (47%), reduce boredom (62%), increase access to restricted information (26%), and increase their confidence (20%).” The study reveals.
Access to technology
Kecia Bertermann, Technical Director of Digital Research, Girl Effect, said that unequal access to technology is a growing area of research, but ‘girls’ are typically subsumed within a broader category of ‘women’ and so their unique challenges often go unreported.
“This study reveals the true reality for girls and their position at the back of the queue when it comes to accessing mobile. It means girls get more of the risks but fewer, if any, of the benefits; without the time or permission to develop the confidence to explore more sophisticated uses of mobile, girls’ tech literacy is hampered. Secondly, given some girls are resorting to using phones in secret, they may feel unable to report safety issues to parents or friends, and therefore put themselves at greater risk.” Said Kecia Bertermann
However, according to a statement released on the report, the research – a qualitative and quantitative study across 25 countries – found that girls’ access and use is dramatically restricted by negative social norms that prevent them from having the same freedoms as boys. More than two-thirds (67%) of boys surveyed reported owning a phone (compared to 44% of girls) and 28% borrowed – compared to more than half (52%) for girls.
Moreover, in countries such as Nigeria, Malawi and Tanzania, boys are more likely to use a phone for a more sophisticated range of activities than girls, for example using Whatsapp and Facebook, searching the internet for news, or finding jobs.
In these locations, girls, on the other hand, are more likely be restricted to using phones for more basic day-to-day tasks that require lower levels of tech literacy, like calling their parents or using the calculator.
In countries like India and Bangladesh, girls seen using phones often face negative judgement from community members, meaning parents are more likely to ban access to a device. Girls who break rules around phones are also more likely to be punished by scolding, beatings, being kept out of school or even early marriage.
Restrictions on girls’ use of mobile also mean girls are more likely to resort to unsafe and covert behaviours to access phones. In locations such as Northern Nigeria, where girls need parental permission to use phones, girls say that boys will often give their girlfriend a secret phone, so that he can contact her privately whenever he wants.
As a consequence, girls see parental safety concerns as the greatest barrier to mobile access (47%), whereas boys cite cost as their greatest barrier (60%).
In Malawi and Rwanda where access to mobile is restricted and girls’ tech literacy is low, even girls themselves fear that phones can lead to them ‘going astray’ by leading to contact with boys and ultimately, unwanted pregnancy.
However, universally girls identify that having a mobile phone can help keep them safe. Girls emphasise much more than boys how valuable a phone can be for minimising danger in their lives. In countries where girls tend to have less access and less varied usage, this is often given as the primary justification for having a phone.
Girls left behind
Andrew Dunnett, Vodafone Foundation Director, said: “Girls are being left behind. In many countries access to mobile is key to a girls’ health, learning and development. We need to face the reality that girls and boys do not have equal access to mobile, and design services that reach the girls and meet their needs in this context. We want this research to inform and support the tech and development sectors in meeting girls’ needs and making real progress in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”
Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect have committed to empower seven million vulnerable girls across eight countries with access to the services they need through mobile. Working in partnership with multiple partners and funders, their aim is to generate total funds of up to $25m over five years, including a $5m contribution from the Vodafone Foundation to achieve this ambitious goal.
The inaugural study urges leaders in the development and tech worlds to recognise the societal constraints holding back girls from accessing mobile.