Mobile Phones for Women Empowerment

I was driving to the airport to pick up a friend of mine who went to the west to deliver a speech on water and sanitation in disaster management. As you drive in to the international airport from the city, you would see a vast amount of billboards advertising various mobile phone networks. Even though India is a middle developed country in the world, it is clear that the mobile phone market is booming like in a well developed country. Mobile phone companies such as Aircel, Airtel, Vodafone, Tata Indicom, BSNL, MTNL, Idea, Reliance Telecom try their best to compete with each other dominating Indian mobile phone market. Mobile phones are today accessible and affordable for many Indians and according to the Wikipedia, India is the second largest mobile phone user based with over 960 million (both fixed and mobile phone) users as of May 2012 where it covers 63.2% of the India population ( Further, India holds the world’s third-largest Internet user-base with over 137 million as of June 2012.

It is true that a mobile phone is very a small unit or a tiny part in the telecommunication field, whilst telecommunication is also, only one area of technology. Today India has marked its icon, as a technologically developed country in all the sub areas of technology. While we are proud about our technological achievements, it is time for us to re-think as to how the people in India are benefited from them – especially the women. Narrowing the subject area of technology and the telecommunication to just mobile phones, what would the answer be to the question, “has this growing number of people using mobile phones led to social and economic development, especially with regard to the Indian women under the poverty line?

Mobile phones are designed to communicate with each other. The first mobile phone was launched in India in 1995, and then initially it became an instrument of a particular social class. One time it was not affordable for a common man to have one, and if one is seen carrying a mobile phone indicated his wealth. But it is past; today everywhere; even in rural areas poor people hold a mobile phone. In this scenario, it is an instrument only for communication – to say a “hello” to somebody.

I prefer to explore as to how we could use mobile phones for the betterment of a society; especially for women. According to the Indian statistics Indians consist 17.31% of the world population – 1.24 billion with 591 million of women.

If we understand the mobile phones with its available basic features it is easy to see how mobile phones could be used for the betterment of women in protection and development. Mostly used feature is the SMS. The mobile phone industry just celebrated the 25th year of introduction of SMS to the telecommunication world by sending a Christmas message in 1992 December. The researchers say that 92% of mobile phone users mostly send SMS, and 15 million of SMS are sent every day in the world.

Affordable mobile phones for reasonable rates, wide range of coverage including rural areas, social and cultural acceptance and encouragement for women and young girls to use mobile phones and the level of public awareness on optimization of usage of mobile phones are the key factors to be considered today. When assessed how women are benefited or how they could be benefited through the usage of mobile phones, basically two areas could be considered: one as the users, and other as a part of the industry. Here, concern is given to mobile phone users.

In India, it is not costly to buy a phone, and many are able to afford this, even in the rural villages. But still, even all the mobile phone communications services are not able to cover at least 60% of the country’s geographical area. This gives an opening for women activists and women rights / development organizations to convince the policy makers and development consultants to consider the women relational concept of the communication development projects, and geographically expand the communication network coverage.

“…..…. I was fourteen when I saw a mobile phone for the first time. One day our papa brought a phone home; that day was a like a festive day. All of us wanted to see how the phone worked – we were eager to call someone; papa called our aunt was in Delhi, and gave the phone to mama; but she was scared and was hesitant to hold it. Few years later papa bought another phone for my brother, but not for me. Having a mobile phone was a fashion those days, and I cried a lot wanting one. And I remember papa telling me that girls do not know how to use a mobile phone…….…”Fatima says today.

Social and cultural acceptance and encouragement for women and young girls to use mobile phones is essential. Even today in some areas of the country it is not socially accepted for rural women or unemployed women to use mobile phones. Though at one time using a mobile phone signified the social class, and women of middle class were reluctant to use this as it became a laughing factor amongst them, when they failed to operate it correctly, today the situation has gradually changed and mobile phones are no more a magic to women of the country.

The important fact is not that women should have mobile phones; but instead what is vital is the level of public awareness on optimization of usage of mobile phones beyond the ordinary communication, in the areas of business, agriculture, protection, security, poverty elevation etc. In the contemporary world, already mobile phones are used for all day to day requirements of people. From small businessmen in the paddy fields to the international traders, from small village fisherman to the fish market in the capital, everybody do their daily businesses via mobile phones. M-learning in the education, from e- channeling to “e” health services in the health sector, all entertainments and media to the mobile screen are not a dream any more. But what is not yet addressed is how this simple technology of a mobile phone could be used for community development – for women development.

The main three pillars of community development are public awareness, people empowerment and organized people, and participation of people. When we elaborate how the application of mobile phones could be used for women development and protection, especially in above pillars, India and Indian women have not yet been reached to an acceptable level.

According to Edward W. Schwerin (1995), there are eight characteristic components of people empowerment; four of them refer to people empowerment and the balance four refer to social and political empowerment. The self-esteem, self-efficiency, knowledge and skills and political awareness, are the components related to people empowerment; and social participation, political participation, political rights and responsibilities and resources are the social – political components in people empowerment. Empowerment can be defined as increasing the capacity of analyzing a situation, and logically and rationally responding to the situation by decision making, implementing and reviewing.

Going beyond the traditional Cooperate Social Responsibility (CSR Projects), the IT firms and the mobile service providers can work together to increase the social life of women. Meanwhile by integrating mobile phone communication technology into organizational strategies of women organizations, whether they engage in protection of women or development of women, they could meet their goals and objectives.

Community organizations as well as the public sector like health, police, disaster management centre etc. could use mobile phones for public awareness, including providing of early warning messages. Furthermore, the agriculture authorities or the community organizations easily and constructively could use SMS for sharing of market prize information with the rural women farmers, fishermen, small scale collectors and sellers. Indian politicians are clever in using mobile phones for their political campaigns, but only few occasions’ civil society organizations use the same for anti- political violence, where first hand information on political violence at grass-root level could be obtained promptly through SMS.

I can recall the voice of that cute girl Pasha, whom I met once during some interviews.  

“….. it is a very common practice that our father come after liquor and fight with our mother. When it gets dark, we get ready to see this every day. How much we tell him or cry, he never stops hitting our mother. Not a single neighbor would come to help, being afraid of getting slaps from my father. My father was only scared of his elder sister – our aunt who lived two streets away.  Earlier my brother used to run to her place to call her home, to stop father from hitting mom. But now we SMS her, and she calls our father on the mobile warning him to stop the fight.”

Sexual and gender based violence are common scenarios in all the corners of the world. Mobile camera, voice recorders and video reorders are being used by empowered women societies to share such information – with women organizations as well as legal aid centers to using them as evidence for legal action. When women are equipped with required knowledge and skills women act responsibly. Communication makes people closer and confident. Mobile phones can easily create virtual communities too.

Participation in, women in planning, decision making, implementing and reviewing in all the development oriented activities are crucial as women are not only themselves, but also they represent the whole family too. So, how can mobile phones be of usage to increase women’s participation in development projects? A good example is public petitions via SMS.

I had to stay for long outside the air port without a phone call or a SMS from my friend who has not thought about informing me that she will be late. The chat – “sanitation” – while driving back home – brought some thoughts to my mind to end this piece of writing.

 “There are more mobile phones than the toilets in India”.

This is presently the most talked topic in India. There were many articles, discussions and campaigns on this issue, but till now none have found solutions.

Kaurwaki | India