Do Mobile Phones Empower Women? An Analysis Of Policy And Advocacy Campaigns Promoting Access To Information And Communication Technology (ICT)

Author: Kristina Scheurle, February 2020.

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“Access to ICT alone does not equate empowerment, and policies with access as a primary focus may at best fall short of supporting gender equality and at worst may actually perpetuate gender-based stereotypes, bias and violence. While owning a mobile phone may be one indicator of empowerment, it by no means guarantees it.”

Image from Pixabay.


India, and the entire South Asian region, have made considerable progress in advancing gender equality in the last decade. The 2018 Global Gender Gap Report indicates that India has achieved 92.9% enrollment at the primary education level for girls (123) and in 2018 succeeded in closing the education gap at the tertiary level (25). Yet, despite these advances and existing legal frameworks on child marriage, non-discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and access to land assets, Indian women and girls continue to face cultural, social, and institutional barriers to equality (OECD). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) Country Profile on India reports that 22% of girls under 18 are married and men account for 87% of agricultural landowners (1). The 2018 Global Gender Gap Report indicates that women participate in the formal labor force at only 28.7% (123) and further notes that India ranks “third-lowest in the word on Health and Survival, remaining the world’s least-improved country on this sub-index over the past decade” (25). Opportunities for education may be growing, but it appears slow to translate to well-being and full-scale inclusion.

Although less measurable, there is a clear gap between the presence of laws, access, as well as enrollment and lived realities. The SIGI does attempt to quantify these gaps, using indicators such as, “Proportion of the population declaring that children will suffer if mothers are working outside home for a pay” which is reported for India at 76% and the, “Percentage of women in the total number of persons not feeling safe walking alone at night” which for India is 81% (OECD 1). One hypothesis might argue that substantive changes in gender equality will not happen overnight. The gap in education has closed within the past five years and more time may be needed to see if that change positively impacts the status of women and girls in India, in terms of their opportunities for employment, their well-being, and health. Even if this hypothesis is true, it is necessary to analyze the approaches to increasing gender equality being used today and the way that progress is being measured. These policies may be most effective when implemented in tandem with efforts that address the social and cultural barriers to gender quality.

This paper will focus on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 of the United Nations which aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” specifically target 5.b: “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women” for which the indicator is, “Proportion of individuals who own a mobile telephone, by sex.” This paper first provides a review and analysis of current policy approaches involving information and access to communications technologies (ICTs) and how such policies are expected to increase empowerment, specifically through initiatives to increase women’s mobile phone ownership in India. The focus will then turn to education and advocacy campaigns taking a broader cultural approach to empowerment with ICTs through civil society.

Does access to ICT empower women in India, and is measuring mobile phone ownership an adequate indicator for this target? If access and ownership are the indicators for this goal, it is critical to look more closely at whether there have been measurable gains for women and girls to answer this question. It is further necessary to examine whether these initiatives are being implemented using gender-sensitive analysis and acknowledge that gender-based violence and harassment can be magnified through ICT. One challenge in this research is that data on mobile phone usage and ownership, especially gender-disaggregated data, is fairly recent and therefore it is not possible to compare data over time in relation to other indicators for empowerment. However, through review of current measures, a range of initiatives, and trends in indicators such as education, employment, and safety, the potential benefits and challenges in assessing the use of ICTs as a measure of empowerment may become more evident.

Context in India

Access to a service, institution, or resource is often used as an indicator for empowerment, such as measuring equity in education by enrollment. There is a broad base of literature, however, that challenges this approach in education and argues that focusing on enrollment alone risks ignoring factors such as quality of curriculum and attendance, and fails to take into consideration whether education is truly empowering women, in terms of leading to or creating more opportunities for equal employment and market access (Aikman et al.; Da Costa; Darkwah). Empowerment itself is a concept that is difficult to define. For this paper, the gender scholar Naila Kabeer’s definition will be the basis. Kabeer defines empowerment as “the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability”, which includes control of resources, agency to make decisions, and power to negotiate (435).

In the context of ICTs and empowerment, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing debate over whether an increasingly connected world is perpetuating global inequality. That is, not only inequality in access, but also inequality in use, design and control. The 2018 Global Gender Gap Report explores the lack of diversity in the technology sector, specifically in Artificial Intelligence (AI), citing that, “Only 22% of AI professionals globally are female, compared to 78% who are male. This accounts for a gender gap of 72%.” The report further states, “The data on the specializations of men and women who hold AI skills suggests that women are less likely to be positioned in senior roles and are less likely to gain expertise in a number of high-profile, emerging skills” (31). Even in developed economies, women are not reaching decision-making roles in the technology sector. This gap is not only detrimental in terms of gender equality; it is also theorized that the lack of diversity at higher-levels in this field will be mirrored and manifest as discriminatory systems (West et al.).

The finding that women hold fewer decision-making roles in the technology sector demonstrates that it is crucial to consider what types of gendered stereotypes are perpetuated when women are not involved with, or accounted for, in implementing ICT projects. A recent qualitative research study completed in India found that while increased access to technology provided young men and women with more spaces to freely communicate outside of traditional settings, it also perpetuated gendered stereotypes such as men using the types of clothes that women wore in their photos or their availability to chat to determine their morality (Philip). It is noted that, “Young men still try to dominate and control women’s online presences by controlling the gendered power of labelling women as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and this continues to foster misogynistic attitudes online as well as offline” (Philip 323).

Further, ICTs and social media can magnify gender-based violence. A 2015 report on cyber violence against women and girls reported, “73% of women have already been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence” and increasing use of these technologies is likely to exacerbate this issue (Tandon and Pritchard 2). Take Back the Tech is a collaborative organization focused on the connection between ICTs and violence against women. It defines technology-based violence as “acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs)” (“Mapping Technology-based violence against Women). Based on reports made to their online map between 2012 and 2014, “Facebook (26%) and mobile phones (19%) are the platforms where most violations were reported” (“Mapping Technology-based violence”).The prevalence of online violence requires consideration as policies promote the use of ICTs.

There have also been many positive benefits reported from increasing ICT access, with the gains for women and girls are most commonly linked to potential gains in economic and employment opportunities. The World Bank’s 2012 report titled “Gender Equality and Development” states, “Trade openness and the diffusion of new ICTs have translated into more jobs and stronger connections to markets for many women, increasing their access to economic opportunities” (22). ICTs create jobs where women are employed at a higher rate than men, such as data entry and call center work. In Delhi and Mumbai, women account for most of the over 1 million people employed in call centers (World Bank “Gender Equality” 258 ). This has the potential to create a positive cyclical cultural impact, by changing traditional attitudes regarding the importance of girls’ education, as it could lead to employment. For example, “in India, the emergence of jobs linked to information technology-enabled service centers (mainly call centers) increased the number of children enrolled in school by 5.7 percent” (World Bank “Gender Equality” 258). It is theorized that the cultural impact could be broader still, in that increased availability and sharing of knowledge across societies has the potential to break down gendered stereotypes and promote acceptance (World Bank “Gender Equality” 258).

In examining the current situation in India, the impacts lean both ways. A closer look at data from the World Bank, World Economic Forum and the OECD between 2011 and 2019 across indicators for employment, education, and health for women in India is provided in Appendix A. In both measures of women’s ownership of a bank account, percentages have nearly doubled during this period, and tertiary enrollment has more than doubled. However, this is not translating into increased participation of women in formal employment, with the rate in India declining from 35% in 2011 to 28% in 2018. Further investigation on the connection between access to ICT and gender equality is needed. The following section will look more closely at responses to ICT access from both urban and rural communities in India.

Measuring the Impacts of ICTs

A qualitative study investigating female entrepreneurs in urban Indian cities supported the theory that ICTs “significantly improve women’s access to information, generate new employment opportunities, and help in nurturing new breed of women entrepreneurs” despite “various factors that hinder women’s access to ICTs like time constraint, location and literacy” (Kohli and Tiwari 8). Among 58 respondents, “58.6% … agreed that ICTs enhanced productivity and 50% agreed that it boosted their confidence” and “50% of respondents agreed that use of ICTs helps in increasing income, while 89.7% agreed that it led to better exposure to new opportunities” (Kohli and Tiwari 12). ICTs have the potential to create more informal spaces in the formal marketplace with telework, which could be advantageous to women as it creates more flexible schedules and allows for a better balance of market work and care work (World Bank).

These perceived benefits need to be weighed in terms of the double burden created. Kelkar et al. write that “with the introduction of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) most women’s daily workload has multiplied, because they have to do unpaid housework as before, in addition to paid work in the IT industry (3). While teleworking provides flexibility, the availability of the job alone does not address the causes of low female participation in the formal workforce that stem from unpaid care demands and the norm that women shoulder the majority of household work. Therefore, access to ICTs alone do not bridge the gaps between education, financial access, and labor force participation.

Employment created by ICTs may also perpetuate gendered stereotypes as women are perceived to be more suited to certain types of jobs. One call center manager interviewed in a study of women in IT stated that women are preferred over men because they have more pleasant voices and more patience (Ng 5). Furthermore, while such jobs are flexible, they are potentially unsustainable as the industry develops. One critique examining the impact of globalization on rural communities found that, “while the call center industry has the ability to provide young women with the means of entry into the banking sector, the danger lies with its being a dead-end job, with limited career promotion prospects” (Mitter 13). Women may have more agency when earning a salary and opening their own bank account, but it cannot be concluded that the availability of new jobs changes traditional perceptions of women’s strengths or creates opportunities for advancement into managerial positions where they are decision-makers. Should the sector shift or change due to advancement, the skills gained are unlikely to then transfer.

In rural areas, measures are more heavily focused on access to and usage of mobile phones. The 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Index uses “Cellphone Use” as an indicator for inclusion. The index reports that the rate of cellphone usage in India is 71% compared to the global average of 78.4% (GIWPS “The Index”). This is not a large difference, but it is important to keep in mind that this data does not distinguish between urban and rural populations. Moreover, putting this percentage in perspective with men’s usage is valuable, as “India has an estimated 114 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone” with 28% of women versus 43% of men owning a mobile phone in 2015 (“Connected Women” 74-75). Cellphone use may be helpful to access services, but is it aiding women’s agency?

GSMA, a trade association of mobile network operators, reports data on mobile phone gender gaps in low- and middle-income countries. Its “Connected Women” report released in 2015 makes an economic argument for operators, stating, “Closing the gender gap in mobile ownership and usage could add an additional $170 billion to the industry by 2020” (34). The report further outlines barriers to women’s access including social norms, recommending approaches for operators and policy makers which include creating campaigns to target harassment, developing safety-services applications, and offering usage plans that cater to women’s calling preferences.

Underlying social norms, as well as levels of education and literacy can have an impact on women’s mobile phone ownership, which is lower than actual usage as many women borrow or share phones. It is notable that 74% of Indian women mobile phone owners answered yes to the question, “I feel more autonomous and independent” (“Connected Women” 36). However, women are less likely to make the decision about buying a mobile phone independently. 41% of women report having no role in device selection and 61% asked permission to do so with their funds or family-funds (“Connected Women” 9). In addition, women who own mobile phones are less likely to control purchase of data to keep it active. The “Connected Women” report found that “SIM owners who bought credit on their own with no help from anyone in the last 4 weeks” is 61% for women and 89% for men (“Connected Women” 9). The primary reason that (47%) women reported not purchasing their own credit was, “The person who pays for my credit goes to the shop for me” (“Connected Women” 9). This indicates that once a woman owns a mobile phone, the usage may not dramatically alter existing family dynamics.

Mobile phone ownership does give women an important link to networks, but it does not necessarily translate into changes in social norms that might allow a woman more agency to make decisions independently. The approach of gender-sensitive policies may be important in changing the balance between perpetuation of the norm and empowerment. The next section takes a closer look at implementation of ICT-related initiatives.

Implementation of Access

Sanchar Kranti Yojana (SKY) is a local government initiative, or scheme, in the state of Chhattisgarh with the aim “to remove the digital inequality among the inhabitants” by providing free smartphones to rural women, students, and those who fall below the poverty line (“Sanchar Kranti Yojana”). The eligibility criteria require that the phone be registered in the name of the woman in the household (“Sanchar Kranti Yojana”). The online journal IndiaSpend reports that 2.3 million rural women were given a phone by October 2018, as well as 300,000 college students and 350,000 urban women (Noray).

The focus on registering phones in the name of the woman within a household is similar to the approach of micro-credit schemes, such as those prevalent through Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization originating in Bangladesh, where the account is registered in the woman’s name and she is responsible for managing the loan. This scheme builds on the idea that women are more responsible with money and more likely to spend it on their children’s education and health. This type of scheme, although certainly shown to be beneficial in terms of alleviating poverty, targets women within familiar patriarchal norms, links their worth to care work, and again does nothing to address the double burden that women face. While it is encouraging that students were accounted for within the SKY scheme, rural women particularly are considered primarily in their role as a wife or mother and not as an individual user. IndiaSpend rightly points out that, “The issue is further complicated by the fact that unlike bank accounts, phones can be easily transferred, and men often control asset ownership within households in South Asian cultures” (Noray).

A national-level scheme incorporating ICTs in India is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). In 2005, the state of Rajasthan used ICT-based systems such as kiosks to register workers and allow them to track their hours and pay (Gupta et al. 82). Creating universal access to an online system provided opportunities for women to independently get information outside of an institutional structure. Gupta et al. write that “this was an easy approach for women as well, since they did not need to go to the Bank Officials to seek information … It avoided all kinds of social barriers for them including speaking to other men and being dependent on them for information” (85). Furthermore, this scheme provided work to women outside of the home, accommodated gendered needs such as access to childcare and positions closer to the home for pregnant women and new mothers, and set a target for 50% participation of women in a supervisory capacity (Gupta et al. 80). By incorporating these gendered needs, the scheme was successful in providing agency:

MGNREGA is a ray of hope for underprivileged and disadvantaged people in the villages of Rajasthan. It actually brought significant change in their lives. Women, who had been only restricted to [the household], got a chance to participate and earn, and move forward on their own (Gupta et al. 85).

Review of these schemes raises doubt that mobile phone ownership is an appropriate indicator for “[enhancing] the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women” (“Sustainable Development Goal 5”). The physical ownership of a mobile phone provides opportunity to access more services, but any benefit must be considered within the social norms of the community. Schemes that only target women as wives and mothers will perpetuate patriarchal standards and likely fall short of creating real change. Further, it is clear that in remote and rural areas, mobile phone ownership may not be the only approach – schemes for an entire community that include gender-sensitive implementation may also encourage gender equal outcomes.

Education and Advocacy Approaches

The number of mobile phone owners by sex is measurable. However, if this indicator is not sufficient to show empowerment, what else should be done? What types of initiatives can be used to supplement policies focused on access and ownership? There are many local, national and global level programs that look at ways to meaningfully increase women’s role in ICTs through education and advocacy.

Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) is a non-profit organization in India that helps girls access, use, and create technology. Per the “Mission and Vision” page of their website, the organization states that they “believe and promote an outlook that questions and critiques the existing structures of technology and seeks to incorporate women as equal partners within it.” FAT fosters participation in ICTs by creating spaces for education and training. The webpage for “The Jugaad (Innovation) Lab for Girls” reports that their innovation lab provides girls with an opportunity to explore STEM with the enrollment of, “44 girls between ages 10 to 15 from seven communities across South Delhi.” FAT opened these labs to respond to the need uncovered in their research, which indicates that girls were not studying STEM due to lack of access, but also due to social expectations that a girls’ time is better suited to arts, home sciences, and chores (“The Jugaad (Innovation) Lab for Girls”).

At FAT, girls’ usage of technology is also leveraged to teach them about advocacy through ICT-based campaigns using videos and social media. In 2013, girls at FAT created a documentary addressing the issue of insufficient toilet facilities and screened the documentary in their local communities to raise awareness of the issue (“Apna Haq Charcha”). The community reaction is shown as overwhelmingly positive, with the girls expressing pride in the documentary video, which they believe will ultimately lead to solutions to their problems (“Apna Hap Charcha”). This type of project provides the needed tools to these girls to access and use technology, providing them with an opportunity to negotiate for their needs within their communities. While harder to measure, and certainly harder to scale, this type of local advocacy may be more effective at changing conditions and social norms than policy based on usage or access alone.

Gender-based violence can also be addressed through projects that use and leverage ICTs. Take Back the Tech is a collaborative of global civil society-based organization which publishes advocacy resources, in addition to publishing research on the links between violence and ICTs and leading global action such as “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” (“Daily Action Resources”). Their approach provides issue-based resources which allows local activists to take the lead in forming campaigns that respond to their communities. They recommend campaigners to: “organize actions that respond to their local priorities, such as workshops on online safety, media monitoring on rape reporting, solidarity actions on the streets and in online spaces and discussions on women’s right to privacy” (ibid). FAT is one organization that has been involved in this global network.

Another organization working to empower women through technology is the Prajnya Trust in Chennai, which organized a campaign during “16 Days of Activism” and held events to raise awareness of violence against women (“Campaign Chronicle”). One such event, “Men Talk Consent”, included outreach to men at the Madras School of Social Work and was centered on, “Facilitating a conversation on consent, masculinity, and gender stereotyping” (“16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence”). These types of projects demonstrate flexibility in incorporating more members of the community, rather than just focusing on women. Considering the earlier analysis of ICT jobs and mobile phone initiatives that fell short of moving women outside traditional norms, this type of education-based community approach may allow ICTs to be used more purposefully to change power dynamics. If initiatives focus on women alone, the broader societal context is missed. Advocacy has the potential to use ICT-enabled networks to expand the message and importance of gender equality.


This paper explored multiple measures and approaches for empowering women though ICTs. The results appear to be anything but uniform, and suggest that it is as important as ever to be attentive to subtle gender biases when designing interventions and programming in this area. Access to ICT alone does not equate empowerment, and policies with access as a primary focus may at best fall short of supporting gender equality and at worst may actually perpetuate gender-based stereotypes, bias and violence. While owning a mobile phone may be one indicator of empowerment, it by no means guarantees it. There are however, clear opportunities to use ICTs to promote empowerment and to generate easier routes of access for women outside of traditional routes, such as teleworking. Mobile phone ownership has the ability to more directly link women to resources such as mobile banking. Advocacy and civil society may then be best suited to ensure that this access reaches its full potential as a tool for empowerment.

The potential harm in using mobile phone ownership as an indicator is that some may consider the job done once that number increases. Increasing the number of users and owners of ICT may take priority, and receive more funding, than routes that are harder to measure, such as education and advocacy. Technology and social media have the ability to be positively leveraged to increase women’s empowerment and their participation in developing the next generation of systems, but not without comprehensive and context-specific awareness of the current problems associated with ICTs and purposeful implementation of policy that incorporates gender analysis.



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Note: All data for India. Cells highlighted green show improvement from the previously noted figure. Labor force participation (%) is highlighted red, showing similar rates in 2017 and 2018 having decreased from 30% in 2014.

Data for account ownership at a financial institution or with a mobile-money-service provider from the World Bank (2019). Data for holds account at financial institution, labor force participation, enrollment in primary education, enrollment in tertiary education from World Economic Forum (2011, 2014, 2017, 2018). Data for prevalence of violence in lifetime and proportion of the female population justifying domestic violence from OECD.


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