Rural Indian women are lagging far behind their urban counterparts in mobile phone usage

Mobile phone use denied.
Mobile phone use denied.
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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In India, less than 46% of women own and use a mobile phone, according to the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) dated 2015-16. This has had the effect of limiting independence for many women, as well as access to opportunities, and the problem is worse when the data is examined more closely. In urbanized centers, 62% of women use their own handsets, but in rural regions the figure is under 37%. This stark discrepancy doesn’t exist in countries like the US, where rural and urban cellphone penetration is on par at close to 95% for both.

The 25 percentage point difference in mobile usage between women from the urban and rural sections of the country was present in most of India’s 36 states and union territories, according to the NFHS data extracted by the Hindustan Times. (Chandigarh and Delhi are excluded from the list because they did not provide a breakdown of both rural and urban data for comparison.)

Phones are still out of reach for millions of Indian women as a result of gendered power dynamics. Because much of rural India remains highly patriarchal, women lack the disposable income to purchase their own phones.

In addition, as the decision makers of the household, men—fathers, husbands, brothers—often bar women from communicating over the phone. “They start talking and the next thing you will have a love marriage or she will run away with a boy,” one such father, Balbir, told the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “If a girl is walking on the road playing music on her phone, what will people think? They’ll say she isn’t a decent girl.”

This narrative has repeatedly been furthered by politicians. “Many students misuse mobile phones by watching blue films and hearing obscene songs which pollute their mind,” said Jitender Chhatar, a khap panchayat (village government) leader, blaming worsening sexual violence in the country on the devices. A village in Gujarat banned unmarried women from using mobile phones and imposed fines upwards of Rs2,000 ($31) for those who do, alleging that cell phone usage by women would create “disturbance” in society. Another village council in Uttar Pradesh followed suit soon after.

In 2015, 114 million fewer women than men owned a mobile phone in India, according to global mobile industry monitor GSM Association. Despite the population being split almost evenly between the two genders, the female mobile phone penetration of 28% was much lower than the 43% figure for males. Indian women are more likely to “borrow” phones from friends and family than own their own device, GSMA noted. Unlike sharing a computer with a family, sharing phones requires women to seek permission and limits their privacy. The inequity in mobile phone usage spills over into internet practices, too. A full 81% of Indian women have never accessed the internet on their phones. And for every woman using Facebook in India, there are three male users on the platform.

Cutting women off from owning and using their own devices has far bigger implications than just curbing communication. Smartphones, and even feature phones now, are equipped with internet capabilities that can be used for job searches, banking, educational purposes, and other empowering uses. In the end, it restricts their autonomy and independence.