A bleak reality lived by millions of women across low income countries and developing markets was laid bare in a GSMA report tracking the gender disparity of mobile use in 2023.  

Statistics showed that for the second year in a row, the inclusion of women in the online world has stalled in such countries, with the widest gap in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

In the report, the mobile industry association explained the continued decline was “the first time this had happened since the GSMA began tracking [the mobile gender gap]”, largely because women in low- or middle-income countries continue to adopt mobile internet at a slower rate to men. 

Today, 440 million women in 12 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America do not have a mobile phone. And, even if they do, they are still 19 per cent less likely than men to come online. 

Out of all the surveyed countries, India – an emerging technology powerhouse – had the biggest gap, the study showed. 

In 2022, UK-based non-profit Oxfam also revealed India accounted for half of the world’s gender digital divide: a challenge for a nation pushing for increased digitalisation and one that has already attracted Big Tech’s attention. 

For one, Microsoft recently announced AI training programmes for citizens in India’s rural pockets, crediting the nation’s promising young talent. 

In 2023, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Prime Minister Narendra Modi the device giant remains committed to investing in the country, aligning with his government’s technology ambitions. Summing up the country’s potential, Deloitte forecasts India will reach 1 billion smartphone users by 2026. 

Offline norms 
However, these initiatives amplifying India’s technology push have meant little to the country’s underrepresented rural women, who are left to face major barriers in entering the digital world. 

The GSMA report also indicated tech awareness is low in India. Just 58 per cent of women are aware of mobile technology, placing the country second to Ethiopia at 47 per cent. 

Beyond mobile adoption’s fluctuating trends, the gender disparity of mobile use and ownership in India exposes the structural challenges and social norms rural women face every day. 

Speaking to Mobile World Live, Nadia Jeffrie, insights manager for Connected Women at GSMA Mobile for Development, pointed out that the gender online divide is far from the only issue and “there are divides in many other ways”, including those affecting older populations and users with disabilities. 

However, Jeffrie noted “rural women are the least likely to be connected as they are 45 per cent less likely than rural men to use mobile internet”. 

According to the researcher, barriers to mobile accessibility for women outside India’s urban hotspots largely hinge on the cost of internet-enabled handsets, literacy and digital skills. 

Even if a handset costs the same across India, those with lower income may still not be able to purchase it, particularly when it concerns women who have less authority over their finances and how they are allowed to spend it. 

Quote Icon

There’s definitely an element of family influence, whether it’s the male gatekeepers or more senior members of the family that will perhaps dictate how or when women can use the internet.

Nadia Jeffrie, Insights Manager Connected Women, GSMA Mobile for Development

Gender norms also “tend to be a bit more restrictive” in rural India, impacting “how women are able to spend their money, how much they earn and whether they earn”. Jeffrie further opened up on the structural inequality which forms the bedrock of a gender-based technology gap. 

“We also know that literacy and digital skills is the other main barrier for Indian women, such as not feeling confident in using the internet, which can translate into many different things”, Jeffrie said. 

Access denied 
A 2021 study centred on rural Madhya Pradesh by BMJ Global Health Journal found social norms led to gender asymmetry not just in terms of mobile access, but also the unspoken “socially acceptable” conditions that determine rural women’s online activities to this day. 

The research revealed women in the region depended heavily on male figures to use mobile phones and are unable to use smartphones in the way they desire. 

“There’s definitely an element of family influence, whether it’s the male gatekeepers or more senior members of the family that will perhaps dictate how or when women can use the internet,” added Jeffrie. 

Mind the gap 
India’s gender connectivity gap saw brief progress during the Covid-19 (coronavirus) lockdown as classrooms moved online. Jeffrie pointed to a “big jump in internet adoption” among women that wasn’t seen among men, which led to a significant decline in the digital gender gap in 2020. 

At this time, there was “more justification” for female members in households to obtain a device, Jeffrie said, though she explained the spike didn’t continue to 2022. 

Times of India in 2023 reported how village authorities in Rajasthan officially banned the adoption of mobile phones for young, unmarried women, which produced a culture of phone-borrowing among female users. 

In the same year, the Rajasthan government promised to distribute free smartphones to 13 million low-income women as part of a re-election strategy. However, the authorities curbed the incentive, blaming a complication in the budget. 

While smartphone ownership does not always translate to autonomy over its use, incentives encouraging its benefits and defying gender-based stereotypes can only help India realise its ambition to become a true digital nation.  

Jeffrie also suggested authorities and stakeholders give rural women “the digital skills to be able to use that device in a way that’s meaningful and effective to meet their needs”, pointing to the GSMA’s partnership with operator Reliance Jio to provide digital training for more than 1,000 women across Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. 

“Gender-disaggregated data also needs to not only be available, but also of quality, so that [stakeholders] can quantify the problem,” she stated, recommending private actors launch mobile services and incentives with these specific, region-based barriers in mind.