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Controlling Women’s Mobile Phone Access & Use

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Abstract

The Future of Finance initiative at Dvara Research is currently researching on low-income women’s access to, and use of mobile phones in India. The aim of this research is to better understand how gender norms and gendered access and usage patterns impact digital service delivery. To date, we have published an analytical review of literature as a working paper and an accompanying blog post, and undertaken preliminary interviews with key stakeholders – a mixture of academicians, experts and practitioners working with low-income women user groups. This work has revealed insights that will enable the next phase of the project, which will involve interviews with low-income women users to understand their access and user experience. In this blog post, we share a major theme that has emerged from the investigations so far: the level of monitoring and control experienced by women accessing mobile phones, which stands in stark contrast to the freedom that men have in operating mobile phones.

The digital revolution through mobile phones holds great promise for rapidly enabling access to services including communication, education, healthcare, entertainment, finding information, and buying products. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mobile phone has become nearly indispensable. Unfortunately, there are startling differences in the ability to access and use mobile phones between men and women.

It is now well-established that not only do fewer women own a mobile phone and use them significantly less, but women’s use of phones and social media is also heavily controlled. Women and girls’ use of mobile phones is under varying levels of surveillance by their family, as noted in the literature (Barboni, 2018; CGAP, Dalberg & Dvara, 2017; Kovacs & Ranganathan, 2017, Tenhunen, 2018) and confirmed in our interviews. This significantly limits the agency and freedom that mobile phones may otherwise give women.

Some early findings that have emerged from our literature review and interviews on how control and monitoring manifests in this context are set out below.

1. Mobile Phone use is monitored due to patriarchal norms

The tendency to monitor is based on concerns over women’s safety; coupled with patriarchal notions of women with a phone bringing shame onto the family, which leads to the urge to control women.  The phone becomes a tool for exclusion, control of access, and surveillance.

The patriarchal norms that exist in society are transferred, and at times reinforced, in the digital realm. For example, women are kept away from online spaces for their own ‘safety’ rather than ensuring that online spaces are made safe for women. Women who access social media face especially savage criticism, and often threatening behaviour when seen to step outside acceptable norms of behaviour, such as expressing strong opinions. That women have access to phones through which they may get the freedom to seek out information and express themselves can be perceived as threatening.

On the other hand, the ability to monitor women has also become a bargaining chip to enable women to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable. A common example is that women may negotiate with their parents to allow them to go to college further away, if their parents can track their movements.

2. Surveillance includes frequent checking, tracking

The monitoring of women’s phone usage takes various forms. We learnt that this could range from listening in on calls or checking messages to putting applications on the phone to track women. Women report that husbands, brothers and fathers frequently check their phones. Some young women have geo-trackers on their phones so that parents, brothers or husbands (and in some cases boyfriends) can track their movements. There were also reports of “spy apps” being put on women’s phones to monitor their activity. Sometimes, husbands configure online banking so that their mobile number is linked to the account instead of the wife’s.

Some respondents noted that young girls are under pressure by boyfriends to allow tracking and spying to show devotion. The concept of “boyfriend phones” exist in some parts of the country – where young men buy phones for their partners to contact them in secret.

3. The preferred place of use is in private or in secret

The place of phone use is gendered in India. This gendered geography of phone use is closely linked to perceived notions of honour and women’s mobile phone use leading to reputational harm for women and their families because (unsubstantiated) rumours may spread, which in turn may affect a young woman’s marriage prospects.  While men may use their phone wherever they please, women primarily use their phone in private – in the home (Tenhunen, 2018; Barboni, 2018) or in secret (Kovacs & Ranganathan, 2017) so as to not raise suspicions.

4. Use out of necessity only and not out of frivolity

There are clear gendered user patterns of the mobile phone. Women are expected to primarily use the phone for necessities, such as calling their husband or close family. Men, on the other hand, may call a wider range of people. Tenhunen (2018) found that men tended to call friends and business associates the most, while also spending far more time on social media, looking up information or watching videos.

5. Women self-censor phone use and online presence

Women often self-censor their presence online due to risk of online harassment as well as reputational harm, including bringing shame onto the family by rumours spreading from online visibility or activity (Kovacs & Ranganathan, 2017; Barboni, 2018; CGAP, Dalberg & Dvara, 2017).  Therefore, women appear to prefer ‘closed-circuit’ apps like Whatsapp as opposed to social media apps such as Facebook (GSMA, 2019) where strangers can contact you, and there is the risk of gossip spreading (Kovacs & Ranganathan, 2017; Barboni, 2018).

However, initial interviews suggest that on women’s only social media platforms or in spaces where their gender is unknown (such as anonymous group chats), women are more active users.

6. Beliefs about women’s abilities become constraints

Beliefs that women “can’t use technology” and realities such as unwillingness to teach women how to use phones, and giving women less advanced phones are all direct or indirect ways to control women’s access and ability to use the phone.

The notion that women are poor at maths, science, technology and finances transfer to the digital world. Women are prejudged as being poor at understanding mobile phones. There are also notions that women should avoid online spaces and social media for their own good and safety, and should not be managing payment and online banking apps, for example.

This notion is especially internalised among older women who may have phones but will not use them.

Because women especially have little confidence in their ability to handle technology, and may have limited literacy, there is a great deal of hand-holding required in the learning process. On top of these challenges, women often do not have anyone to learn from and men frequently do not see the value in teaching women how to use the mobile phone or go online.

Conclusion

In sum, it is clear that there are many dimensions to controlling and monitoring women’s access to and use of mobile phones such as the physical checking of phones, installing spyware, limitations on the type of use that is deemed appropriate, or the notions of shame and compromising family honour. Broadly, the control patterns we see in the real world are now manifesting in the virtual world as well.

We will be exploring these themes in more detail in future research papers that will capture the findings from this project.


References

Barboni G., Field, E., Pande, R., Rigol, N., Schaner, S., Troyer Moore, C. (2018). A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India. Cambridge, MA: Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard Kennedy School.

CGAP, Dalberg & Dvara (2017). Privacy on the Line: What people in India think about their data protection and privacy. Dvara Report. https://dvararesearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Privacy-On-The-Line.pdf

Kovacs, A. Ranganathan, N. ((2017) Chupke, chupke: going behind the mobile phone bans in North India.  https://genderingsurveillance.internetdemocracy.in/phone_ban/

Sonne, L. (2020) What Do We Know About Women’s Mobile Phone Access & Usage? A review of evidence. Dvara Research Working Paper. https://dvararesearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/What-Do-We-Know-About-Womens-Mobile-Phone-Access-Use-A-review-of-evidence.pdf

Tenhunen, S. (2018) A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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