Several years ago, when I was working with CARE USA, we began a partnership with Bata Shoes in Bangladesh. Women in remote villages were essentially trained to become door to door shoe salespeople. This was a revolution at the time, because mobility for women in these villages was severely restricted, and most were unable to leave their village unless accompanied by a male relative. For this reason, most women wore shoes that were purchased by their husbands or fathers. Having a salesperson in the village meant women could choose their own shoes.
Letting a husband or father pick out your shoes is unthinkable to most women in developed countries. But so are the limitations and restrictions that are put on women’s movement in the developing world. In some places cultural practices or religious beliefs restrict women’s participation in public spaces. In other places safety and security concerns act as de facto constraints on women’s movements. In India, a recent survey found that 91% of women felt public transport was unsafe for them. Lack of resources also constrain women’s mobility. Women are much less likely than men to control cash resources needed to pay for a bus, taxi, boda boda or other form of public transport. For most women in developing countries, their world is only as wide as they can walk in a day.
Constraints on women’s mobility become constraints on their access to information, political participation, education, health, skills and jobs. They are also constraints on women’s development of social networks. In the developing world, social networks fulfill important economic and social roles, connecting women to resources, but more importantly to each other. Social networks function as an important safety net in places without access to financial services and provide sources of information in places with low formal education levels. The broader a person’s social network, the more resilience they have in the face of economic shock. Smartphones are an important resource for women in developing and maintaining a broad social network.
A Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 LMICs found that smartphone users are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds and are more connected with friends they don’t see in person. Pew found that one of the advantages of smartphones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. The most common activities on phones are casual, social activities. That doesn’t mean it’s all people use their phones for, people with smartphones are also more likely to have accessed new information about health and government services. But it does indicate the value that people put on maintaining social networks across distances.
These social networks are particularly important for women because of their relative isolation. In northern Nigeria for example may girls are married young and leave their home village to live in the husband’s village. Without a smartphone she has no way to maintain ties with her family, or to reach out to them if she faces troubles. If she has children, they may leave when they grow up, travelling to the city for work, or to other villages for marriage. Maintaining these family ties isn’t only important for women’s emotional health, but also provides a critical safety net.
Ravi Agarwal in his book India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy notes that for many Indians, the smartphone is their first private TV screen, personal music player, computer, and camera. Agarwal compares it to the experience of owning a car for the first time—autonomy, privacy, and mobility.
This is particularly true for women, who are less likely to be literate and therefore unable to use text and SMS on feature phones. Between 2015 and 2020, millions of Indian women have gone online thanks to cheaper smartphones and mobile data, and apps that let them communicate using sounds and images. Smartphones benefit women, as they can be used visually and orally. Women can use photographs or audio memos to communicate with family and friends, and voice commands can be used to access the internet.
Smartphones are also connecting women to political and social movements. During the Arab Spring, women used social media to express their views. Online platforms allowed them to express themselves freely and allowed their voices to be heard by the rest of the world. In India the hashtag #DelhiGangRape brought global attention to gender-based violence in public spaces, resulting in changes to the Indian Criminal Code. The success of the movement is largely credited to women taking to social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
In future blogs, we’ll discuss in more detail the economic benefits of smartphones. In development, it’s easy to think of women as instruments. If we improve women’s lives children’s lives improve, economies grow, agricultural production increases. But women’s lives are valuable beyond what they contribute to others, and smartphones can help enrich their lives; connecting women to the world and to each other.