Economic Growth

How mobile phones are changing women's lives

This article is published in collaboration with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A Kenyan farmer sends a text message to enquire about the latest maize prices from her maize fields in Thigio 35km (22 miles) from the capital Nairobi June 23, 2005. Mobile phones have become the most essential work item for Kenya's small businesses. In June 1999, Kenya had only 15,000 mobile phone subscribers but by the end of 2004, the country had 3.4 million subscribers, according to Kenya's telecom regulator, Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK)

Having a mobile phone can lead to broad positive impacts for women in developing countries. Image: REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

Leora Klapper
Lead Economist, World Bank
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Mobile phones are great for catching up with friends and family or texting selfies. But for many people around the globe, especially women in developing nations, owning a mobile phone can mean far more:

-Financial independence


-Better family health and education

-Access to the Internet, government services, and information

Mobile phone ownership gives women the ability to open a mobile phone-based bank account, an important gateway to financial independence. A private account gives women in developing nations control over their money as well as the ability to put food on the family table.

A mobile phone also gives women the ability to open a business in a remote village, without having to trek to a distant city to register that business. And, with a phone, women in developing countries can more easily schedule a clinic appointment or register their children for school.

But these benefits are unavailable to the 1.7 billion women in developing countries who don't own a mobile phone. Around the world, women are 14 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, according to the GSMA, an association representing mobile operators worldwide. The situation is even worse in South Asia, where women on average are 38 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men.

Tanzania provides one example of how mobile phones help women. The East African nation has rolled out an ambitious program allowing parents to register their child’s birth via mobile phone. Under the program, midwives can request a child’s birth certificate by sending a text message.

That can save parents precious time and money required to travel to the capital. It can also save parents the usual fees tied to birth registration—this in a country where many rural residents must survive on less than US$1 a day.

Anna Mbelwa, who gave birth last year to a baby boy at Mbalizi Hospital in southwest Tanzania, told Reuters the initiative made a big difference. "I was very impressed because it usually takes a long time to get a birth certificate," she said. "It was very inconvenient before since parents had to travel a long distance to the district registrar only to be told their children's files were missing."

The government hopes its program will allow it to better map out public services. For Tanzanian children—especially girls—a birth certificate grants access to schools, medical care, and, maybe one day, a bank account.

It’s worth remembering that mobile phones also provide an important on-ramp to the Internet and the countless opportunities it conveys. The household phone no longer hangs on the wall—but is kept in a back pocket and may not be accessible to other family members.

Although web access is increasing globally, only 60 percent of people in the developing world will have an Internet connection by 2020, according to the GSMA's projections. Mobile phones offer an alternative to computers, the traditional mode of logging on, and they already are transforming the way people get online. In 2015, 2.5 billion individuals in developing countries accessed the Internet via mobile devices, GSMA says.

The Internet is a powerful economic tool for tens of millions of women across the developing world. That’s important at a time when less than half of women worldwide are employed versus three-quarters of men, according to the World Bank Group.

Statistics like those spurred the G-20 in 2014 to vow to “bring more than 100 million women into the labor force, significantly increasing global growth and reducing poverty and inequality.” But how can that happen when 1.1 billion women worldwide are excluded from formal financial services?

No sharing, please

Female mobile phone ownership would be an important step toward bringing more women into the formal financial system. There’s a caveat, however: A woman must have her own phone, rather than sharing one with a family member. A woman cannot open a mobile money account unless her phone is registered in her name.

Such accounts give women control over their money. And they open economic opportunities, like working from home or securing credit to launch a business. With an account, women can begin saving money on a regular basis—as little as $1 a day makes a big difference. That money can go towards an end-of-month bill or longer-term educational or business investment.

Digital financial services offered through mobile phone platforms allow women to transact safely and conveniently from their own communities, businesses, and homes. This can allow women to receive or transfer money—without traveling to deposit a check or pay, say, a child’s school fee. Digitization also can make it safer and easier for women to put aside money for a medical emergency or a family job loss.

Moreover, it can protect those savings from family members who may demand a share of the money. In Bangladesh, for example, we’re helping factory owners pay wages directly to an account, instead of in cash. Women textile workers told us that previously their husbands or mothers-in-law would confiscate the cash they brought home—but now they have a voice in how the money is spent.

Mobile money accounts can also help women manage risk, often in places where formal insurance is limited. In Kenya, users of M-Pesa mobile money service were more likely to receive monetary help during a household emergency, from a larger and wider network of friends and family. Yet in many low-income countries men are significantly more likely than women to own a mobile phone—and the gender gap is growing, ranging from a low of 1 percent in China to 45 percent in Niger. For example, in Rwanda, 53 percent of men have a mobile account compared with 37 percent of women, and the gap has grown by over 10 percentage points in the past five years.

Cultural, social, legal, and technological barriers must be overcome before more women can own mobile phones. For example, women may be barred from owning their own phone or using a male mobile agent. In India, village councils banned women from using or possessing mobile phones, saying the devices were “debasing the social atmosphere” (and leading young women to elope). Women are also less likely to have the documentation necessary to open an account or purchase a SIM card. In Pakistan, for example, women are 10 percentage points less likely than men to have a national/government-issued ID. Women often don’t have equal access to education, more often lack financial literacy, and tend to adopt technology at a slower rate than men in some developing countries.

It’s important, then, for governments, businesses, financial service providers, and development organizations to do all they can to overcome such barriers and get mobile phones into the hands of women. That wouldn’t just unlock countless benefits for women—it could also deliver a much-needed boost to the world economy.

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