FEATURE15 April 2019

The world in your hands

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Mobile phones can open up opportunities for girls in developing countries, but research from Girl Effect identified social norms that have to be addressed. By Katie McQuater

Your world in their hands

Conversations about our increasingly digital world tend to assume mobile phones are universal. For many young people around the globe, however, owning – or even having access to – a phone is a distant prospect, and little is known about the barriers to mobile technology.
Non-profit organisation Girl Effect wanted to address this by studying how girls use mobiles and their barriers to access. Using a mixed-methods approach – which included interviews by technology-enabled girl ambassadors (TEGA) and online surveys – the research explored the issues that girls aged 13-19, in 21 countries, face when it comes to mobile ownership, use and behaviours.

More than half ( 56%) of girls surveyed in the TEGA interviews – in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh – do not own a phone, compared with 33% of boys. However, 52% of girls (compared with 28% of boys) say they access a phone by borrowing one.
The findings reveal that mobile access for girls is more complex than simply owning or not owning one, says Kecia Bertermann, technical director at Girl Effect. “When we dig deeper into the stats behind a girl not ‘having’ a phone, we see that sometimes she’s a borrower, or she might have a secret phone.”

Cost is the main barrier for boys not owning a phone – and affordability is certainly an issue for both sexes – but the biggest issue girls face is societal: namely, their parents’ safety concerns. “The reasons that keep girls in a state of borrowing rather than owning are often because of negative social norms – and it’s tackling these that will be the biggest challenge for organisations,” says Bertermann.

Such norms are often engrained in the girls, particularly when it comes to safety; 16% said girls don’t own phones because they are unsafe – and while 45% of those who own a device say it makes them feel safer, a third say it makes them less safe.

Girls’ environments have an impact on how they perceive mobile-phone use. Those who enjoy more freedom in their community and family tend to have greater levels of access to a phone and emphasised its role as a gateway to connections with others outside of their home/community. This finding was backed up by the online survey data: more than half of girls ( 54%) who never have to ask permission to use a phone said it makes them feel more connected, compared with 46% of those who need permission.

The research highlights how polarising phones can be. “Girls can simultaneously describe the phone as helpful for education, but also a distraction from school. They point to phones as helping them expand their social network – but also as a means of introducing them to ‘bad friends’. Phones help them feel safe, allowing them to call someone in an emergency – but they also feel more exposed to danger in terms of potential theft and online harassment. These juxtapositions lead to complicated associations with the device.”

The TEGA interviews were conducted with 1,371 girls and boys in seven countries. The online survey of 1,747 was conducted across 21 countries.

The phone paradox

The online survey found that phones:
● Make half of all girls feel better connected
● Provide access to a much wider education ( 47%)
● Reduce boredom ( 61%)
● Increase access to restricted information ( 26%)
● Increase confidence ( 20%).

However, several girls noted that phone access/usage made them feel more stressed, harassed or bullied, or said phones increased others’ control of them.