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INDIA: Mobiles For Gender Empowerment

NEW DELHI, Dec 4 2009 (IPS) – The Indian Government should consider providing mobile phones at a subsidy to women from the bottom of the pyramid since it helps improve their status and welfare, says a recent report.

According to a Stanford University study titled ‘The Impact of Mobile Phones on the status of women in India’, mobile phones significantly decrease both men and women’s tolerance of domestic violence.

“Phones may empower women by giving them better access to social services. Given the privacy of talking on the phone, women can more easily report domestic violence or consult family planning agencies,” says the report by Dayoung Lee of the university’s department of economics. Besides, “unlike other ICT devices, mobile phones do not require literacy or sophisticated skills that many women lack”, points out the report.

The report further states that mobile phones help increase women’s autonomy in mobility and economic independence, but does not have any significant effect on child preferences and other measures of autonomy.

Nilanju Dutta of Jagori, a women’s training, documentation, communication and resource centre, corroborates this. The New Delhi-based organisation has done a lot of work in domestic violence and runs a counseling centre. “We have started tracking the phone calls since around three-to-four months back, and almost 50 percent of the calls come from mobile phones.” (sidebar for detailed interview).

The ‘Safe Delhi For Women Initiative’ will basically come out with strategies for creating a city that is safe for women. In one of the first initiatives, the government is planning to set up CCTV cameras in buses, and later on to work with its Bhagidari programme and with resident welfare associations to address women’s safety in their areas.

“My husband beats me regularly. The lady I work for took pity on me and gave me an old mobile phone. She told me in front of my husband that if ever my husband troubles me, I should just call her. I wouldn’t say that my troubles have vanished, but the beatings have certainly reduced,” says Meena Padhan, 30, a domestic worker who lives in Masudpur village, south Delhi, and works in a middle class neighbourhood.She is just one of the countless women who are benefiting from the mobile revolution. With 500 million subscribers, mobiles are advancing into the furthest corners of rural India.

While there is no separate data on the number of female subscribers in the country, according to a recent Lirneasia Teleuse Survey (a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank), mobile phone ownership is far lower among females than males in South Asia.

Statistical analysis shows that gender has a significant impact on mobile phone adoption at the bottom of the pyramid in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Consequently, in this segment, 12 males have access to mobile phones in comparison to five females.

Since the ownership of mobile phones is lower among females than males, women are less likely to have access to the phones unless the government intervenes through policies such as subsidies or free-phone programmes.

“Women who are managing our branches in the villages have become power centres in the villages,” says Anil Tuck, country head-field operations of A Little World that has developed one of India’s first domestic payment systems – for banking and pension disbursement – with specific focus on reaching out to communities with the lowest possible communication infrastructure.

“It goes a long way in increasing their (women’s) confidence since most of them are earning for the first time. Our observation is that they handle the instrument very carefully but men are very casual,” he adds.

What A Little World has done is set up customer service points that are mainly operated by women – selected from self help groups – in some 8,000 villages in 23 states. “Women take their responsibilities more seriously than men,” according to Tuck. The operator must be literate, and have studied up to grade seven.

After a minimum of two-days training, each person is given a Nokia 6212 mobile phone – the outgoing facility is barred – besides a biometric scanner and printer for processing banking transactions.

The technology has been so successful that A Little World has tied up with the government to implement the National Old Age Pension Scheme and National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in 10 districts of Andhra Pradesh state. Earlier the pension was disbursed through the village chief.

“I was not working before I joined A Little World,” says Kale Santhoshi from Mamidipally village in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, one of the few graduate operators. She earns up to 1,500 rupees a month (roughly 30 dollars). Her husband runs a small provision store in the village.

Since January this year, she has opened 230 bank accounts, she told IPS, very proudly. “This has given me employment as well as respect of the villagers. I can do everything from opening a bank account to disbursement of funds… I like working on the mobile …,” the 30 year old said in a phone interview.

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