Giving Women a Phone – and a Voice

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For Riya, Project Sampark means more than just a marketing strategy. It is a way to bridge the mobile gender gap. Learn how she and other Project Sampark ambassadors go about their day with this objective in mind.

Throughout the world low- and middle-income countries suffer from a great digital divide: over 1.7 billion females do not own mobile phones, and women are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This results in a gender gap of 200 million fewer digitally connected women than men.

In India, the data is even worse: women are 36 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man, and in the countryside, this disparity is wider. A study in India’s rural Aligarh district found mobile phone ownership in only 29 percent of women, compared with 76 percent of men. In addition, men generally make the decision about which handset is purchased, and therefore control whether a woman has access to an internet-enabled phone or simply a basic handset.

This gender inequality has negative implications in many areas, including finance inclusion, which aims to help women gain access to financial services through mobile phones. Without her own mobile phone, a woman must rely on a male family member, making her financially and socially dependent and vulnerable.

When a woman owns her own phone, however, her world opens up. She can connect with family and friends. She can feel safe when she travels. And in the future in these areas, she’ll be able to use these phones to transfer money to relatives, open savings accounts and pay for utilities, her small business, or school for her children. A phone in this area of India is more than a device. It is a powerful symbol – of pride, empowerment and independence.

Indian women also lag far behind men in their ability to earn a living. According to Oxfam, India has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates among large developing countries, second only to Saudi Arabia. And it’s one of the few countries where the number of working women has actually declined in the last decade.

Nineteen-year-old Riya is a typical woman from a conservative family in rural India, confronting the same challenges faced by many Indian women: her father did not allow her to own a mobile phone, and despite her Bachelor of Commerce, she had few job prospects. Riya, however, was determined to become an independent, more self-sufficient woman.

She began working as a promoter for Telenor Group’s Project Sampark—a project that bridges the mobile usage gender gap in rural India and creates work opportunities for women. It combines innovative retail and marketing strategy with a new product and also uses street plays to sensitize male members about the benefits of a woman owning a mobile phone. Once shy and introverted, Riya now goes door to door selling Telenor’s Bandhan SIM plan: a pack of two paired SIMs, one used by a woman and the other by a male household member. When the woman’s SIM is topped up with credit, so too is the male’s SIM card. With this product, Telenor hopes to encourage men to see the value of owning a phone for the women in their household, thereby overcoming the cultural barriers.

Riya has found that selling mobile connections to Indian women can be challenging. The men, who are the decision-makers in the house, often believe that one phone is enough. Men are also sceptical and fearful of what independent mobile phone use might mean in the lives of their wives and daughters. But with time and persistence, Riya has often helped change this mind-set and offers experiences from her own life, such as times when she or her mother needed to make an urgent phone call, but could not. Even Riya’s father, who was unsure about her working, is now proud. “He sees the impact it has for the families in the community, and that I am making money that contributes to our household,” Riya said.

Riya’s highly traditional grandmother also became a convert. She too was against women having phones, especially girls. “At first she did not like me going out to sell, but when I explained the entire project, she was moved,” Riya said. Riya’s grandmother became her first customer, and now happily calls her daughters and granddaughters regularly.

Through her job with Project Sampark, Riya is fulfilling her dream of becoming more independent, even supporting her own education. In the big picture, she feels she is making a difference in the lives of the women in her village, and even in society. “The women in my village now feel safer, and are proud of having a mobile connection and a device in their own name,” she said. They are no longer dependent on male family members to make calls and keep in regular touch with their loved ones. “The sense of independence and confidence is unmatchable. Maybe this is the first step towards a larger social change.”

Project Sampark, an initiative created by Telenor India, is helping to bridge the mobile gender gap. Project Sampark overcomes key barriers like cost, culture, technical literacy and perception of values, all of which discourage women to adopt mobile telecommunication services. Having also determined that women retailers serve women customers more effectively, Telenor recruited a network of local women retailers to market and sell the Bandhan SIM plan. To address the digital illiteracy many Indian women face, Telenor has also opened 270 customer education hubs with many of the staff being women.

In 87 pilot villages in the Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh, the Project Sampark’s Bandham SIM plan accounted for over 30 percent of new Telenor subscribers, and was regarded as a commercial and a social success. Project Sampark has also won a host of awards for its contributions to social change.


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