Technology can change society in unexpected ways, smartphone designers probably didn't expect them to spark a quiet feminist revolution. By giving women access to information that was previously almost impossible for many to obtain, phones are saving and transforming lives. The scientists who have measured this recommend making phone access a priority in poverty reduction programs.
Thinkpieces assure us cell phones are shortening our already limited concentration spans and facilitating bullying, while the minerals that power them cause human rights abuses. All these may be true, but may miss an even bigger story.
A paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science observes, “Macro-level analyses covering 200+ countries reveal cell phone access is associated with lower gender inequality, higher contraceptive uptake, and lower maternal and child mortality.” However, this is a case where correlation does not necessarily equal causation. This relationship could easily be because pre-existing wealth and education are known to provide all these benefits, and presumably also increase phone access.
First author Dr Valentina Rotondi of the University of Oxford investigated whether phones are bringing about positive change, or just riding a wave that carries other benefits as well. The paper demonstrates, “Ownership of mobile phones has narrowed the information gap about reproductive and sexual health and empowered women to make independent decisions [throughout sub-Saharan Africa]”. Worldwide smartphones provide Internet access to more than a billion people who remain a long way off owning a desktop or laptop.
Rotondi and co-authors used a variety of data sources and methods of analysis, all of which showed the strength of the association between cell phones and reduced gender inequality. Surveys of more than 100,000 women in seven countries show the phones are a cause, as well as an effect, of wider progress.
Even without any other changes, a woman with a cell phone is more likely to be aware of, and use, effective contraception options, the paper reports. Harder to measure, but perhaps more important, smartphone access increases the extent to which African women participate in decisions historically made by men. “For most outcomes, the effect of owning a mobile phone is roughly comparable to—if not bigger than—that of living in an urban area,” the authors write. There are also correlations between cell phone use, HIV testing, and having at least one visit to a qualified medical expert during pregnancy, however for these the authors could not prove the phones’ responsibility.
The effect is largest in the poorest countries, where information crucial to women’s empowerment is hardest to find in other ways. Although Rotondi and her co-authors have not extended their research to other continents, it seems likely the same findings would apply anywhere phone access remains incomplete.