Culture and Cost, Safety and Services: Research on Mobile Phones and Afghan Women

Culture and Cost, Safety and Services: Research on Mobile Phones and Afghan Women

It is no secret that the number of people using mobile phones has exploded in the last ten years. In 2002, for example, there were 49 million mobile phones in Africa; today there are more than 700 millionMobile technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and connect to social, economic and political resources. And while there is still a considerable gender gap with regard to mobile phone ownership and usage throughout the developing world, more and more women are now using mobile phones to access social services and new economic opportunities. 

Recently, USAID released a report that supports the fact that even in hard-to reach places with strict societal norms for women, mobile phones have an impact. The Afghan Women’s Capacity Building Organization conducted a survey of 2,000 women from five major provinces to determine their access to mobile technology in Afghanistan. In the report, USAID presented some key positive findings:

  • As of late 2012, 80% of Afghan women surveyed have regular or occasional access to mobile phones.

  • Access to mobile phones is growing quickly, especially among young women.

  • 44% of women who live outside of urban areas own their own phones; 39% have access to a family member’s phone.

  • Mobile phones are becoming gateways to social and commercial services, including those related to health and education.

  • A majority of women surveyed believe that “connectivity enhances Afghan women’s lives, making them feel safer, better equipped to cope with emergencies, more independent, and more able to access the family members and friends who comprise their networks.”

  • A majority of women surveyed believe that mobile phones are essential tools.

  • Fear of technology is not a barrier.


Culture and Cost - The Key Barriers to Women’s Access to Mobiles in Afghanistan

53% of those surveyed who do not own a mobile phone cited conservative social norms as the greatest obstacle. Many lack permission to own or share a mobile phone. One woman interviewed said that the men in her family threatened to kill her if they found her with a phone in her hand.   The second greatest obstacle the surveyed women cited was the cost associated with using a phone. According to the USAID report, while the average monthly salary of an Afghan is $45, a new, basic phone costs anywhere from $29 to $48.  

During focus group discussions, women voiced their concerns regarding ownership of mobile phones that centered on privacy and social norms. Some worried that increased access to phones might encourage greater unsupervised communication between young unmarried men and women, which could have grave consequences in their conservative communities.  

Safety and Services: The Main Draws of Mobiles

At the same time, Afghan women do see mobile phones as essential tools to increase their personal safety and to connect them with friends, family and social/economic services.  According to the USAID report, the first greatest perceived benefit of having regular access to mobile technology is the ability to connect with family and friends.  The second most important benefit is an increased sense of personal safety and security - it can help them cope in emergency situations. Also very important: women surveyed believe that mobile phones can be used to spread awareness of women’s issues throughout the country. Some women mentioned that mobile phones help them access educational information and news in Afghanistan.

Given the many benefits of mobile technology, USAID made some recommendations for Mobile Network Operators (MNO’s) and for Afghan Policymakers regarding how to make them more accessible and relevant to women.:

  • Marketing mobile phones as life-enhancing tools for families.

  • Expanding the reach of mobile applications through voice-based platforms or services (according to UNESCO only one in five women are literate).

  • Addressing women’s concerns about privacy and cost.

  • Making the purchase of mobile phones accessible to women by bringing the “marketplace” to them.

Perhaps they can also incorporate innovative initiatives and projects implemented in other countries. In Nigeria, for example, it would be inappropriate or even dangerous for a Muslim businesswoman to meet with a male customer by herself or to travel to certain areas for work but with a mobile phone she can build and maintain customer relationships from a distance.  Companies, such as Nokia, are partnering with philanthropic foundations to create special mobile applications targeted at women entrepreneurs. In addition, other organizations are developing mobile applications and services to support mobile health care services that could benefit Afghan women as well. The Grameen Foundation and BabyCenter joined forces in 2010 to develop the “Mobile Midwife,” a mobile service that delivers timely health information by voice or SMS to pregnant mothers and their families before and after childbirth in local languages.   

The NDI Women's Program and NDITech are currently developing a set of projects focusing specifically on tech in women's political participation as candidates, elected officials, and as citizens and voters. While the research conducted by USAID could have focused more on how women can use mobile tech as citizens, it still provided useful data that supports our assertion that mobile phones and programs have the capacity to improve women's lives.