Vodafone Foundation report finds that in many developing nations girls’ access to mobile is dramatically restricted compared to that of boys

Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect focus on access

Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect focus on access

The Vodafone Foundation and non-profit Girl Effect have published the first comprehensive global study into how adolescent girls access and use mobile technology. It found that in many developing countries, girls have a far more restricted access to mobile compared to boys.

Andrew Dunnett, Vodafone Foundation Director, said: “Girls are being left behind. In many countries access to mobile is key to a girls’ health, learning and development. We need to face the reality that girls and boys do not have equal access to mobile, and design services that reach the girls and meet their needs in this context.”

How girls access mobile technology in developing countries

The research by the Vodafone Foundation revealed that across 25 countries, although girls’ mobile phone access in developing nations was higher than expected, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls. Only 44% of girls interviewed in the survey said they owned a phone, compared to 67% of boys. This is despite revelations that phones help girls to feel more connected (50%), provide access to education (47%), reduce boredom (62%),  increase access to restricted information (26%) and increase confidence (20%). The way in which girls use their phone  also differed in particularly in countries such as Nigeria and Malawi. Here boys use their phones for more sophisticated tasks such as using Whatsapp and searching for news or a job. Where as girls in these locations are more likely to be restricted to using phones for more basic tasks such as calling their parents.

Social judgment for girls using phones

In some of the countries where the Vodafone Foundation and Girls Effect research was undertaken, such as India and Bangladesh, girls who used a mobile phone were subject to negative judgment for community members. This might result in a parent banning access to a device. If a girl breaks the rules, they are more likely to be punished by scolding, beatings, being kept out of school or even early marriage.

“If it's a 15 year old girl, she won't be allowed to go out of her home, she will be beaten and her educational privileges will be taken from her. It can also happen that she is married off. “(Girl, 17, India)

Girls are putting themselves at risk by sharing and borrowing phones in secret

Because of these restrictions, girls are more likely to resort to unsafe and covert behaviours to access phones. In some countries, such as Northern Nigeria, girls need parental permission to use phones, boys will often give their girlfriend a secret phone so that he can contact her in privately. This has lead to girls seeing parental safety concerns as their greatest barrier to mobile access (47%) whereas boys site costs (60%).

Kecia Bertermann, Technical Director of Digital Research, Girl Effect, said: “Given some girls are resorting to using phones in secret, they sometimes feel unable to report safety issues to parents or friends, and end up putting themselves at greater risk. In Malawi and Rwanda, where access to mobile is restricted and girls' tech literacy is low, girls themselves fear that phones can lead to them 'going astray' because they assume that mobiles lead to contact with boys and ultimately, unwanted pregnancy.”

Despite the risk, girls emphasise much more than boys how valuable a phone can be for minimising danger in their lives.

The Vodafone Foundation wants to empower girls across these developing nations

In response to these findings, the Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect have committed to empower seven million vulnerable girls across eight countries with access to services they need through mobile. The aim is to generate up to $25m over five years, including a $5m contribution from the Vodafone Foundation. The study also urges leaders in the development and tech industries to recognized the societal constraints holding back girls from accessing mobile. Vodafone and Girl Effect are calling on industries to implement the following manifesto:

Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect girls and mobile manifesto

  1. Address the mobile gender gap holistically. Girls face physical barriers to accessing mobile phones, but it is often the social barriers that are the most challenging to overcome. These can be most effectively addressed by taking into account the local context and taking a holistic approach, to tackle multiple barriers simultaneously through a combination of digital and non-digital means.
  2. Rewrite literacy for the digital age. Tech literacy is a crucial component of education - girls are at risk of falling behind if we don’t invest in this. Support should include integrating tech literacy and digital safety into school lessons for all students, as well as encouraging broader acceptance of mobile phones amongst families and communities.
  3. Design for online safeguarding. Girls everywhere - from Northern Nigeria to Adams County, Colorado - want their online experiences to be safer. When designing platforms, we must make special considerations for users who borrow phones. We need to design an experience that is just as safe for a girl who has intermittent access to different devices, as it is for one who has constant access to her own device.
  4. Involve men and boys. Men and boys often have greater access to phones than girls and women, and also sometimes act as gatekeepers to mobile access. We need to support these gatekeepers to challenge taboos around mobile and show how phones can practically improve girls’ lives.
  5. Support girls to expand their own digital horizons and co-create. Girls are better placed than anyone else to design relevant and valuable solutions for their own lives. This presents a huge opportunity for the tech sector to bring girls into the development process. We need to increase girls’ tech literacy – from daily use of phones, to coding ideas and interventions – and enable access to spark creativity and create without boundaries.

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