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More women in South Asia are now using mobile internet services even as the underlying gender gap in smartphone ownership persists, according to GSMA’s latest Mobile gender gap study.
Into its fourth year, the study found that the gender gap in mobile internet usage in South Asia fell from 50% in 2019 to 36% in 2020, reducing the overall mobile internet usage gap in low and middle-income countries from 19% to 15%.
When it comes to smartphone ownership, women were 15% less likely to own a smartphone than men in low and middle-come countries, down from 20% in 2019. This was driven largely by higher smartphone ownership in South Asia, thanks to lower cost of handsets and data, according to Claire Sibthorpe, the GSMA’s head of connected women, connected society and assistive tech.
Sibthorpe said Covid-19 restrictions in India had also provided socially acceptable justifications for women to go online to access educational resources. This was not the case before, as strong social norms in some parts of the country had prevented women from using a phone, she added.
The gains in South Asia, however, were masked by the stagnation in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Women in both regions now face a similar gender gap in mobile internet use, with 37% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa using mobile internet services.
The GSMA noted that affordability, lack of literacy and digital skills, and lower awareness of mobile internet were critical and common barriers for women. Even when women had the same levels of education, income, literacy and employment as men, they were still less likely to own a mobile phone or use the mobile internet.
“If women are to become equal citizens in a more digital, post-Covid world, closing the mobile gender gap has never been more critical,” said Mats Granryd, director-general of the GSMA, urging policymakers, the private sector, and the international community to help women and their families reap the full benefits of connectivity.
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These benefits include improved socioeconomic well-being, especially in poverty-stricken areas where access to education and healthcare might not be available to women, either because these services don’t exist or women are prevented from leaving their homes to access them, said Sibthorpe.
The GSMA introduced the Connected Women Commitment initiative in 2016 to drive efforts to close the mobile gender gap. These efforts include working with telcos to lower handset costs and introducing financial mechanisms that enable people to pay for their phones through smaller instalments.
“We’re also seeing a lot of efforts by mobile operators and others to provide digital skills training that's relevant for mobile rather than laptops and tablets,” Sibthorpe told Computer Weekly, adding that this includes teaching women how to stay safe online.
Mobile operators continued to make commitments throughout 2020, with 40 mobile operators across Africa, Asia and Latin America making formal commitments to accelerate digital and financial inclusion for women since 2016. These operators have already reached more than 40 million additional women with mobile internet or mobile money services.