South Asia has among the world’s widest gender gaps in access to mobile phones: today in India, 67% percent of men use mobile phones, but only 33% percent of women do.

During a public event in Delhi last week (Dec. 14) researchers from Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) presented evidence on the causes and effects of India’s mobile technology gender gap, as well as possible solutions to address it. EPoD co-hosted the event, titled “Answering the Call: Putting the World in Women’s Hands,” with the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR) and the Observer Research Foundation, with support from the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at HKS.

Charity Troyer Moore, EPoD’s Research Director for India, framed the discussion by putting the mobile accessibility issue into greater context. For women, she said, access to mobile phones correlates with their income, education, ownership of assets and measures of empowerment. Moore also remarked that research points to the potential of mobile technology to improve a variety of outcomes for poor households, and raised the question of whether closing the gender gap in mobile engagement could improve other important outcomes for women in India. “Can closing the gap in mobile usage help close other gaps – such as in women’s economic engagement, or health?” she asked.

The intersections between moral conventions, gender roles, and mobile phone usage emerged as major themes in the panel discussion that followed. “We aren't only talking about the lack of access to mobiles, but also politics, and the lack of autonomy,” said journalist and TV presenter Barkha Dutt, who moderated the panel.

Rohini Pande, the Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at HKS and co-director of EPoD, said that beliefs must be understood if they are to be altered. “There are distinctions between actual norms, perceived norms, and individual beliefs,” she explained. “When norms clash with beliefs, they can be changed.”

Apps that make mobile phones more valuable to women in practical terms may help break down perceptions that women don’t need phones, Pande explained. She cited programs like Kilkari – a government-run mobile voice message service that delivers messages about pregnancy, nutrition, childbirth and maternal and child care – that can make the value of phone use clear to men and women alike.

The event served as a forum for discussing the current state of research, as gathered in an EPoD-run project by researchers from Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and the University of Southern California. Their report is the first stage of a research agenda that will test ways of increasing women’s access to mobile technology in India.

The Indian media has widely reported instances of phone-based harassment, and the research team found that survey respondents often cite this as a reason to restrict women’s access to mobile phones. Ankhi Das, Director for Public Policy for Facebook in India, described how her company has introduced “India-first” innovations to keep women’s profile pictures from being misused. The “private photo guard” feature keeps images from being downloaded or even captured by screenshot. “When privacy is guaranteed, the usage is much higher,” Das said.

Das argued that gender norms pose the greatest barriers to women’s use of technology, particularly in rural areas. Yet she cited instances in Bangladesh where phones were linked to women’s livelihoods and those barriers began to weaken. “When a phone becomes a tool of economic production, then you see more equity in both ownership and time spent on the phone,” she said.

Samir Saran, Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation, gave a warning for the future if patterns of technology use are not challenged. “If democracy is going to be digital in the future, if governance is online – and if we don’t have gender parity – then you’ll get a masculine outcome most of the time,” he said.

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