[Assam] [assam] Mobile Phones Offer Indian Women A Better Life
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Wed May 23 02:14:22 IST 2012
New York Times (May 22, 2012)
The Female Factor
Mobile Phones Offer Indian Women a Better Life
By NILANJANA S. ROY
NEW DELHI — In the months after Garima Gupta’s wedding, she cherished
one of her presents above all — the mobile phone given to her by an
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The young woman’s move from the prosperous town of Karnal in the
northern state of Haryana to her husband’s family in a small village
outside Agra, in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, had meant, as it does for
many Indian women, dramatic changes. Part of the sharp dividing line
between the past and her present life was leaving behind her first name
as well as her family name, as is common practice in northern India.
Kumud Mittal became Garima Gupta, the name chosen for her by her
“My in-laws were not unkind,” the 22-year-old said recently. “But I was
just 19, and I had never been outside of Karnal, away from my family,
my friends. Their calls and advice made me feel less lonely in a new
In India, researchers are just beginning to study the effects that the
explosive growth in the mobile phone market has had on women’s lives.
For women like Ms. Gupta, access to a mobile phone can break the
pattern of marital isolation. At the Barefoot College, a school in the
northwestern state of Rajasthan that provides professional training for
rural women, the mobile phone allows even illiterate entrepreneurs to
compete in the marketplace.
In the state of Gujarat, the mobile phone is central to an innovative
scheme that allows rural health care workers to compile information
about pregnant women and then text message reminders for checkups and
Ms. Gupta discovered that having access to her own phone had raised her
status among her sisters-in-law, who have to share their husbands’
phones. Her mobile phone also provided a crucial connection to her own
family, especially since her husband’s village had no working land
lines and, despite her own family’s prosperity, Ms. Gupta had little
formal schooling and could not read or write. Without the phone, her
married life would have begun in extreme isolation.
Access to a mobile phone can enhance women’s welfare in other ways. In
a recent report, Dayoung Lee, a student researcher at Stanford
University in California, noted that “mobile phones significantly
decrease tolerance for wife beating and husbands’ control issues, and
increase women’s autonomy in mobility and economic independence.”
Access to outside support and the knowledge that others may intervene
serve as a check on domestic violence.
Mobile phone penetration in India is much higher than for land lines,
with around 700 million subscribers, according to the most conservative
estimates. (In contrast, India had about 97 million regular Internet
users at the end of 2011.) The easy availability and relative
affordability of the mobile phone are attractive features — and it
sidesteps the barrier of illiteracy in a way that the Internet cannot.
According to Indian government figures, only 65.5 percent of Indian
women are literate, compared with 82 percent of men.
However, there is also a gender gap in mobile phone access. According
to research conducted by the GSMA Development Fund and the Cherie Blair
Foundation, only 28 percent of Indian women own a mobile phone,
compared with 40 percent of men. An additional 20 percent of women have
access to mobile phones through family members or friends.
What holds down the numbers is that many rural women lack the necessary
proof of identity and address required of mobile phone users. In some
cases, mobile phone connections are bought by men for the women in
their household, who do have such proof, in the form of utility bills,
driver’s licenses or other documents.
Money also determines the availability of mobile phones. In a study of
female beauticians, food preparers and fish vendors in Mumbai, Aneela
Babar, Judith Shaw and Marika Vicziany found a direct link between
income and mobile phone use. Most of the beauticians, who earned the
highest wages, owned phones. The fish vendors, who earned the least,
could not afford a phone, even though they believed that having one
could help them in their business.
The study found that in low-income families, there was typically one
mobile phone in the possession of the male head of household, with the
women enjoying little or no access.
On occasion, mobile phones have become symbolic of a new — and to some
conservative sections of Indian society, threatening — independence
among women. An incident in 2010, in which a village council in Uttar
Pradesh banned young, unmarried women from using mobile phones, drew
much media interest. The village of Lank had experienced several
elopements, and the council feared that mobile phones made it easier
for men and women to communicate privately. The ban, however, applied
only to women, not to young men.
In February, the Indian minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh,
ran into trouble when asked about the shortage of toilets for women — a
situation that has affected girls’ ability to attend school and women’s
access to work outside the home.
Mr. Ramesh insisted that what women wanted these days was more phones,
“Sanitation is the much more difficult issue,” he said. “Now we are
talking of behavioral changes, and women demand mobile phones. They are
not demanding toilets.”
His remark was widely reported as an awkward gaffe and led to many
headlines about phones versus toilets.
But Mr. Ramesh may have been on to something, if he had indeed noticed
the rising demand among women in rural India for mobile phones.
Toilets are crucial, so much so that the bride’s family will now often
turn down prospective grooms who cannot provide a bathroom of their
own. Now the one technological object that promises to be even more
life-altering for the average Indian woman may be the mobile phone.
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