As part of the Working Papers series, Dr. Lina Sonne, Inblick Innovation Advisory, has authored our latest research paper titled “Women’s Mobile Phone Access and Use: A Snapshot of Six States in India”.
This paper provides a snapshot of the way digitisation through mobile phones plays out among women in India, based on a review of literature, semi-structured interviews with 21 key stakeholders and 60 interviews with low-income women end-users across urban and rural locations in six states. Our findings suggest that nearly all women respondents have smartphones, have their own phone (rather than shared) and have a new phone (as opposed to a hand-me-down). Nevertheless, women primarily use the phone at home to avoid raising suspicion or gossip. A majority of respondents reported calling and receiving calls on a daily or weekly basis, while WhatsApp had overtaken conventional SMS. Very few women said their phones were monitored, though some noted that they have serious concerns about the risk of harassment online. While women are able to operate their phones for everyday purposes, they struggle with adequate digital literacy when it comes to advanced features.
The full paper is available here: while we set out a summary of findings below.
India has seen a rapid increase in mobile phone access in the last few years, fueled by the rapidly increasing availability of cheap mobile phone handsets and access to cheap mobile data.
However, while availability and access to phones have increased overall, women lag behind on access, usage and ownership of mobile phones in India. This study set out to better understand how women access and use phones, as well as the barriers they face in phone access and usage.
This study aims to provide a snapshot of what mobile phone access and use look like for low-income women in India based on semi-structured interviews with 21 key stakeholders and structured interviews with 60 women end-users across six states in India. The women are all customers of financial services provider Dvara KGFS. The findings highlighted below, therefore, are based on interviews with women who can be considered to have some level of pre-existing agency, financial discipline and mobile phone know-how.
Our interviews point to increased access to mobile phones with advanced features for women. All women respondents have access to a mobile phone, and 88% of them have their own phone. Nearly all of them (79%) have smartphones and were able to operate them reasonably well. The rest have basic and feature phones.
About half of the women stated that they bought the phone themselves. The other women have phones primarily gifted by the husband. Overall, 47% top-up their credit themselves or jointly with their husband.
When asked about phone use, 25% of the respondents reported using their phone hourly, and 68% reported using it a few times a day. Almost 9 out of 10 women make calls daily, while all the women bar one receive calls daily. Women most commonly make calls to the husband and other family members. 72% of women make calls to their family on a daily basis, and another 20% do so on a weekly basis.
In contrast, only 28% of our respondents make a work or business-related call daily, while 22% make a call weekly. Only 63% of women who work make a business call at least weekly.
When it comes to messaging services, WhatsApp overtook conventional SMS (on both smart and basic phones), and the majority of women use WhatsApp much more frequently. 70% of the respondents send or receive a WhatsApp message daily (compared to 8% and 15% of the respondents sending and receiving, respectively, an SMS daily).
About half of the women use their phones to manage their finances, including mobile money applications such as PayTM and PhonePe, and to receive OTPs. Some women noted that this use has increased during the pandemic.
Women use the phone for entertainment by watching videos received through WhatsApp or going on YouTube, listening to songs and using other social media. In addition, most women had used their mobile phone for their children’s education during COVID-19, and also used their phone to look up information and access news.
Barriers to Access and Use
Most women remain constrained in the location and the type of phone use. Women primarily use their phones at home, with only one-third of women saying they are comfortable using the phone outside, and then primarily for urgent calls. There were mixed reasons for not using the phone outside. While some women were not allowed to use their phones outside, others worried about what their neighbours would say.
Very few women said their phones were monitored, though they have serious concerns about the risk of harassment online, primarily through random calls.
Our respondents were able to operate their phones for everyday purposes, and about 90% said they were happy with the level of knowledge they have of the phone. However, many struggled with adequate digital literacy when it comes to advanced features.
Implications for Further Research
While more research at a greater scale and depth is required to fully understand the dynamics of women’s mobile phone usage, three priority areas stand out based on this snapshot.
First, there is a requirement for much more data to understand the nuances of women’s mobile phone use, and from a much larger sample. For example, research should provide a better understanding of how adolescent girls and young women use the phone – and the constraints they face, a better understanding of how not being able to operate phones may constrain older women, and on specific areas such as financial inclusion, health or digital education
Second, various forms of monitoring – whether actively checking phones on a regular basis, receiving information on behalf of women, or constraining women’s geography of use, is a major challenge to gender-equal phone use and digitisation. Therefore, it is necessary to have a much better understanding of how to manage surveillance and monitoring of women’s phone access and use, through extensive research.
Third, with women upskilling themselves on using the phone both by trial by error and by watching videos to seek answers, there are opportunities to study how to provide better user support to women, as well as study how phones and phone features can be made more user-friendly in their design.
The full paper is available here.
*This paper presents independent research commissioned by the Future of Finance Initiative at Dvara Research in furtherance of the Initiative’s research agenda. The Initiative’s work focuses on the impacts of digitisation and technological innovation in Indian finance, leading from the low-income consumer perspective on these issues.
 GSMA (2019). Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019. GSMA Report.
 GSMA (2019). Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019. GSMA Report.
 This paper sets out to provide a snapshot of how women use mobile phones. It does not make inferences on whether the type and amount of usage is attributable to gender-based barriers or other matters such as preferences or personal choice. This is out of scope and merits further larger and more in-depth studies.
 Dvara KGFS provides financial services solutions to women and men across the country and has regional offices in the six states covered in this study. As customers of Dvara KGFS, the respondents may therefore be used to certain models of thinking and financial behaviour that people who do not use financial services may not be accustomed to.
 A smart phone is a phone with internet access and advanced feature while in our sample, basic phones include basic feature phones (feature phones are not understood as a separate category by respondents).
Cite this item
Sonne, L. (2021). Women’s Mobile Phone Access and Use: A Snapshot of Six States in India. Dvara Research Working Paper.
Sonne, Lina. 2021. “Women’s Mobile Phone Access and Use: A Snapshot of Six States in India.” Dvara Research Working Paper.
Sonne, Lina. “Women’s Mobile Phone Access and Use: A Snapshot of Six States in India.” Dvara Research Working Paper (2021).