OPINION: COVID-19 accentuates the need to address mobile phone gender gaps

Friday, 12 June 2020 12:49 GMT

Women sit on the ground maintaining social distance waiting to receive relief supplies provided by local police authority amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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Mobile phones have been a lifeline for many during the pandemic - but women are much less likely have one

Claire Sibthorpe is head of the Connected Women and Connected Society programmes at GSMA, an industry organisation representing mobile network operators worldwide.

Magdalena Banasiak is a senior innovation adviser at the British government's Department for International Development (DFID).

In today’s world, connectivity is more important than ever. At a time when we are facing a global COVID-19 pandemic and “lockdown” in many of our communities, a mobile connection can be the only way to access essential information and services and to connect virtually with friends and family.

We have seen a recent increase in demand for mobile services, and a surge in ‘voice traffic’ on mobile networks as the demand for voice communication rises. Across low- and middle-income countries, mobile is also the primary way most people access the internet, which is proving a vital tool for increasing awareness and sharing information about COVID-19, and for providing access to critical services such as healthcare, education and livelihoods while in lockdown.

We have passed an important milestone with 54% of women across low- and middle-income countries now using mobile internet, according to new GSMA research. Incredible progress has been made, particularly in South Asia.

This milestone is especially significant during this pandemic, given that women are responsible for the vast majority of care work for children, the elderly and sick in the home, and many run informal microbusinesses from domestic settings. Getting mobile technology into their hands is now more important than ever, for the sake of the well-being of themselves and their families, and for society as a whole.

The internet can bring a wealth of information and content to women in lockdown. Online medical advice or remote video consultations with a doctor can be a lifeline at a time when travel is not possible; video apps can be a comforting means of keeping in touch with friends and relatives; access to online educational content is crucial for women to support their children with home schooling; and virtual marketplaces can be key to maintaining a women’s microbusiness or finding essential products.

But the reality remains that in an increasingly connected world, and at a time when it matters most, women are being left behind. Access is still a key challenge. Whilst the gender gap in mobile internet is narrowing, it remains significant. Over 300 million fewer women than men access the internet from a mobile device across low- and middle-income countries.

Furthermore, the underlying gender gap in mobile ownership remains largely unchanged. Women across low- and middle-income countries are eight percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

There are many reasons behind the mobile gender gap. Affordability is the key barrier to mobile ownership, while low awareness, lack of literacy and digital skills, and affordability are the main factors preventing women’s mobile internet use. These are crucial barriers which can and must be addressed.

We are proud of what the mobile industry is doing to address this crucial issue, demonstrating that targeted action can make a difference. A prime example are those operators who have worked with the GSMA Connected Women team to collectively reach over 50 million additional women with life-enhancing services since 2010.

The Department for International Development is committed to continuing its partnership with the GSMA and the mobile industry to further accelerate digital and financial inclusion for women.

Still more needs to be done. Mobile can change lives, communities and economies. As we face restrictions on our daily movements caused by current and future pandemics, it has never been more urgent to ensure that no one is left out of the digital revolution.

We urge the mobile industry and other private sector organisations to accelerate their work to reach women customers. We also encourage the international community, policymakers and regulators to engage with the industry and take action on this important issue. Only by working together can we truly address the complex issues driving the mobile gender gap and ensure no woman is left behind.