Girls worldwide are restricted from mobile phone usage: study

girl mobile phone
Image credit: Somchai Sanvongchaiya /

Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls as societal prejudice and other barriers disproportionately restrict girls’ access and usage of mobile, according to a new global study from non-profit organization Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation.

The report – billed as the first comprehensive global study into how adolescent girls access and use mobile technology in 25 countries, 25 countries, including India, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Bangladesh – found that girls’ mobile phone access in developing nations is higher than expected; while only 44% of girls interviewed in the study say they own a phone, more than half (52%) access phones by borrowing one.

The study reveals that phones make girls feel more connected (50%), provide access to education (47%), reduce boredom (62%), increase access to restricted information (26%), and increase their confidence (20%).

However, the research also found that girls’ access and use is dramatically restricted by negative social norms that prevent them from having the same freedoms as boys. More than two-thirds (67%) of boys surveyed reported owning a phone (compared to 44% of girls) and 28% borrowed, compared to more than half (52%) for girls.

Moreover, in countries such as Nigeria and Malawi, boys are more likely to use a phone for a more sophisticated range of activities than girls, like using Whatsapp and Facebook, searching the internet for news or finding jobs. On the other hand, girls in these locations are more likely be restricted to using phones for more basic day-to-day tasks that require lower levels of tech literacy, like calling their parents or using the calculator.

In countries like India and Bangladesh, girls seen using phones often face negative judgement from community members, meaning parents are more likely to ban access to a device. Girls who break rules around phones are also more likely to be punished by scolding, beatings, being kept out of school or even early marriage.

Restrictions on girls’ use of mobile also mean girls are more likely to resort to unsafe and covert behaviours to access phones. In locations such as Northern Nigeria, where girls need parental permission to use phones, girls say that boys will often give their girlfriend a secret phone, so that he can contact her privately whenever he wants.

As a consequence, girls see parental safety concerns as the greatest barrier to mobile access (47%), whereas boys cite cost as their greatest barrier (60%).

“Unequal access to technology is a growing area of research, but ‘girls’ are typically subsumed within the broader category of ‘women’, so their unique challenges often go unreported,” said Kecia Bertermann, technical director of digital research at Girl Effect. “This study reveals the reality for girls and their position at the back of the queue when it comes to accessing mobile. Firstly, we found that girls experience more of the risks but fewer, if any, of the benefits; without the time or permission to develop the confidence to explore more sophisticated uses of mobile, girls’ tech literacy is hampered. Secondly, 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.

However, universally girls identify that having a mobile phone can help keep them safe. Girls emphasise much more than boys how valuable a phone can be for minimising danger in their lives. In countries where girls tend to have less access and less varied usage, this is often given as the primary justification for having a phone.

“Girls are being left behind. In many countries access to mobile is key to a girls’ health, learning and development,” said Andrew Dunnett, Vodafone Foundation Director. “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. We want this research to inform and support the tech and development sectors in meeting girls’ needs and making real progress in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect have committed to empower seven million girls across eight countries with access to the services they need through mobile. Working in partnership with multiple partners and funders, their aim is to generate total funds of up to $25 million over five years, including a $5 million contribution from the Vodafone Foundation, to achieve this goal.

This inaugural study urges leaders in the development and tech worlds to recognize the societal constraints holding back girls from accessing mobile. Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect call on industries to take action and implement the following:

  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 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.

The report is available here.

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