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  • Kecia Bertermann

Girls and mobile: access is just a piece of the puzzle

In many countries around the world, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than a girl. Even when girls have access to a phone, they are more likely to have to borrow a phone than a boy.

This surprising data comes from Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation’s recently published research on girls’ access to and use of mobile phones, which brings to life the voices and experiences of 3,000 adolescent girls and boys across 25 countries. The research shows that in most countries, the experiences that girls and boys have with phones is markedly different. Where boys are allowed to use phones openly, girls often have to seek permission or use borrowed phones.

When girls have fewer opportunities to actually have a phone in their hands, they have fewer opportunities to use the phone – to practice using functionalities like looking up information, operating apps and making social connections. In the meantime, their male counterparts are making strides in mastering mobile technology.

What is preventing girls from having or using phones as often as boys do?

Cost is identified as a barrier, but girls disproportionately mentioned safety considerations, including online harassment or linking phone use to eventual pregnancy. Crucially, the research showed that the less direct access a girl had to a phone, the more concerns she had about safety, suggesting that a lack of familiarity could perhaps result in worry or fear of the phone itself.

These worries about phones are often compounded by community perceptions about girls with phones. In many locations in the research, girls talked about assumptions in the community that surround a girl with a phone. For example, one research respondent in India said that “If parents give their son a mobile phone, the community doesn't say anything, but when parents give a girl a phone, the community asks questions.”

In the face of this significant digital gender divide, urgent action is needed.

If girls in many communities can only learn how to use a phone in secret, what does that mean for girls’ tech skills compared to boys’ skills five years from now? Are girls being put at greater risk as a result, unable to share when something goes wrong because they’re using a phone in secret? In an increasingly technological world, girls and boys need to have basic skills to manage everyday technology and actively work to remove the negative social barriers for girls.

To reduce this disparity, we need to actively engage stakeholders and community members to decrease perceptions of negativity that surround girls and mobile use. But we also need to change the way we as a sector speak about this issue. We speak of access – but this abstract word relates to deeply held community norms that prevent girls from joining boys as equals in the digital revolution. In the face of a widening digital divide, we need to use language that is immediate and urgent. Let’s challenge ourselves to go beyond talking about access.

Let’s start asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to make it normal for both a girl and a boy to use a phone?’ And let’s start challenging ourselves with, ‘If girls are limited to borrowing phones, how can we design for her use?’

To do so, we need to acknowledge that access is just part of the puzzle. We need to learn more about the social norms that surround girls and technology – we need to learn more about the nuance of girls’ phone ownership and borrowership. Let’s have more open conversations with community members, parents and girls about what is collectively holding girls back from open access to mobile technology. The longer we wait, the wider the digital gender divide – and the longer it will take to decrease the gap to a point where a girl can own a phone as proudly as a boy.


Kecia Bertermann is Technical Director of Digital Research and Learning at Girl Effect.

Follow Kecia on Twitter: @keciabert

Follow Girl Effect: @girleffect

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