Women and mobile phones

Continuing our searches on the influence of the mobile phone on the status and standing of women, particularly in the developing world, David discovered that Kutoma Wakunuma quoted in our earlier post  has written up some of her observations from field work. Here’s a snippet,

Mobile phones affect more than just communications. They can also reinforce society’s unequal power relations. A three-year study in Zambia looks at this, partly in terms of relationships between husbands and wives.

The study found that mobile phone access and use has positive impacts for women. They benefit from faster, cheaper communication and a strengthening of family, friend and business-related social networks. However, mobile phones also provide a new focal point for social conflict between spouses and can reinforce traditional gender power differences. This happens as some husbands determine how wives use their phones, and even whether or not they are allowed to continue owning a mobile.

Interviewees consistently reported problems of insecurity, insensitivity, mistrust and jealousy, which sometimes resulted in physical and verbal abuse, particularly by men towards their wives <snipped examples> These findings suggest that new technologies have become another aspect of oppression of women by men, and a source of inequality between them. These inequalities are not just social: mobile phones can also reinforce economic gender differentials. Handsets and airtime are still expensive, and women may be less able than men to afford their use. However, insufficient official statistics on a range of gender concerns relating to technology mean that these new developments are difficult to analyse.

For women, the social and economic advantages of accessing and using a mobile phone far outweigh the disadvantages. But those promoting and making policies for mobile phones must understand that these new technologies create problems as well as solutions. These problems must be recognised if they are to be addressed. Among other things, this will require much greater gender awareness in policies and projects. ~ Kutoma Wakunuma

Sounds a bit disheartening, to be sure, but that’s reality. On the other hand, there are also stories where owning a phone has made such a big difference to a woman’s life that overall one can continue to be inspired and work towards designing concepts that could conceivably make a positive difference. From IPS news,

Janet Malika owes her success to the little gadget that is her cell phone. Formerly a struggling food hawker in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, she has become a cafeteria owner since acquiring the device about five years ago, and using it to conduct business.

“Before, I would waste a lot of time trying to get ingredients from the market. By the time I got ready to start preparing food for sale, it would be so late — and I ended up losing a lot of customers,” she told IPS.

“With a cell phone all I have to do is call my suppliers, who will deliver the ingredients within no time. Because of the phone, I am always on time in preparing meals for customers. My business has expanded to the point that I have opened a cafeteria. All I know now is profit.

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