By Juliet Umeh
One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, of the United Nations is to achieve gender equality by empowering women and girls. But this is still a herculean task for developing countries.
However, a new study by researchers from McGill University, University of Oxford, and Bocconi University have suggested that putting smartphones in women’s hands could be a powerful tool to support gender equality especially in the developing world.
The study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences covers 209 countries between 1993 and 2017 and shows that access to mobile phones is associated with multiple indicators linked to global social development, such as good health, gender equality and poverty reduction.
In an effort to better understand how mobile phones empower women, the authors also conducted an individual-level analysis on 100,000 women from Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe between 2015 and 2017.
Though these sub-Saharan countries show fertility decline and infant and maternal mortality rates remain high, the adoption of mobile phones is fast spreading.
Results indicate that other things being equal, women who own mobile phone have a one percent higher probability of being involved in decision-making processes about contraception, two percent higher likelihood of using modern contraceptive methods, and a three percent higher likelihood of knowing where to get tested for HIV with respect to women who do not own a phone.
These effects are sizable, as they are comparable to, if not bigger than, the effects of living in an urban area compared to living in a rural area. Similar effects are estimated on higher overall decision-making power within the household.
According to the researchers, improved knowledge and enhanced decision-making power are the likely pathways through which the macro-level results emerge. The analysis of individual data also confirms that the effects are stronger in poorer and more isolated areas.
Still, despite the proliferation of mobile networks, the researchers acknowledge that digital divides by gender and socioeconomic strata persist in the developing world.
Women are less likely to own mobile phones on their own, use them less often when they have access, and have poorer information and communications technology skills compared to men, creating second-level (skill-related) digital divides on top of first-level (access-related) ones.
A professor in the Department of Sociology and Centre on Population Dynamics at McGill University, Luca Maria Pesando, said: “Our results suggest that deploying mobile-phone technology might serve to complement the role of other development processes such as educational expansion and economic growth rather than a replacement for it.”