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Why Getting Women To Use Mobile Phones Is Important For Inclusive Growth

21/03/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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The role of women in improving the standards of living for all members of society is well acknowledged. Therefore, empowering women is imperative for the socioeconomic growth of the nation. A mobile phone is an important tool for women's empowerment, not just enabling basic connectivity but also providing them access to information that can enable them to make the right choices, thus increasing their overall independence.

There are several examples from developing and developed markets to corroborate this. Reinforcing the importance of mobile phones for women, Jasuben Malek, a member of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), Gujarat, says, "I used to wonder about this machine called a mobile phone, but once I began to use it, I realized its many advantages. I can immediately call the wholesale market to inquire about prices and place direct orders. I am now recognized as a businesswoman who grows and sells sesame seeds. I'm not just somebody's wife or sister."

[T]he gender gap of mobile ownership is as much as 114 million.

The paradox of our Indian society is that while many of us recognize the importance of women's growth and development, other sections do not even allow a woman to own a mobile phone. Recently, some villages in Gujarat banned girls and single women from owning mobile phones, saying that the devices distract them from their studies. This is not the first time such a ban has been imposed. Villages in eastern Bihar had imposed a similar ban a few years ago, saying mobile phones were "debasing the social atmosphere" by leading young women to elope.

India is the world's second-biggest market for mobile phones, with more than one billion users. However, according to a study, reported in LiveMint, the gender gap of mobile ownership is as much as 114 million. This gap is more prominent in rural areas. A joint study conducted by Telenor and BCG a couple of years ago in remote areas of Aligarh found that men of the house usually make the decision on whether or not women should use mobile telephony. According to the report, 21% fewer women than men owned a mobile phone. These inconsistencies in our society are a huge deterrent to the government's Digital India vision. A study published by Deloitte found that a 10% increase in mobile phone penetration rates is linked to a GDP increase of 1.2% in a low- or middle-income country.

It's hence imperative for the government and all stakeholders in the industry to look at ways in which the critical issue of the mobile gender gap in India can be addressed. The first and foremost step towards this is concerted efforts towards educating all sections of society about not only the benefits of providing mobile phones for women but also the different ways in which these benefits can be reaped.

Increasing awareness on how a mobile phone can improve the standard of living for the entire family can appeal to the bottom of the pyramid in India.

Different sets of women have diverse needs that can be addressed through a mobile phone, so tailored solutions become very important. Increasing awareness on how a mobile phone can improve the standard of living for the entire family can appeal to the bottom of the pyramid in India. Further, benefits like safety, connectivity and modernity should also be emphasized. With a mobile phone a women is not dependent on someone else to communicate with her husband who is working in another city or a daughter leading her married life in another town.

What is even more critical is how the education on mobile phone usage is imparted. Nukar nataks (street plays) work very well for rural residents. Also, one-on-one communication with women by trained women social activists, in their own local language develops a better connect.

A few years ago, we implemented an interesting initiative that worked very well. Through this initiative, named Project Sampark, we used unconventional ways to narrow the mobile telephony gender gap. The first step was introduction of a product concept - linking two SIMs in a manner that recharge of either SIM accrues additional benefits to the second. The idea behind this was forcing men to buy SIMs for women in the family because of the additional value add that they would get. Further, trained women door-to-door sales agents proved to be hugely successful and helpful to customers (especially women) who would never consider walking into a retail store and talking to a male salesperson about mobile phones. These trained promoters were supported by a call centre managed completely by women, so that our women customers were comfortable talking to them.

Greater usage of mobile phones by women will not only stimulate social and economic progress, but also generate incremental subscriber and revenue growth for mobile operators.

The Indian government has recognized the importance of mobile in empowering citizens and realizing its Digital India vision. If together with industry players, the need of every section of society can be studied and tailored solutions provided, it can result in far better impact. In addition, addressing other factors like affordability of handsets and poor infrastructure will also be important to increase overall mobile telephony and also reduce the gender gap.

Greater usage of mobile phones by women will not only stimulate social and economic progress, but also generate incremental subscriber and revenue growth for mobile operators. As per a GSMA report if operators in developing nations just bring mobile phone penetration among women on a par with penetration among men, they would collectively earn US$13 billion in additional revenues each year!

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