Given the power of mobile phones to unlock economic opportunity, Pakistan’s mobile phone gender gap must be addressed squarely.
By Afshin Molavi | April 18, 2018
The mobile phone has transformed every aspect of our lives from how we connect, consume, and commute, to how we work, bank, and play. In developing countries, the mobile phone revolution has transformed lives, offering previously unimaginable opportunities for financial inclusion, education, and healthcare. In Kenya alone, it is estimated that mobile money company M-Pesa has helped lift 194,000 households out of poverty in less than a decade.
Given the overwhelming evidence of the power of mobile phones, a probing question looms over Pakistan: Why do so few women have access to mobile phones?
Pakistan ranks among the worst in the world in terms of the mobile phone gender gap. A recent report by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a global partnership of leading organizations focused on financial inclusion, noted that 86% of Pakistani men have access to mobile phones, while only 27% of women do. This is one of the largest mobile phone gender gaps in the world.
CGAP used data from a 2016 Gallup Poll to tally its numbers, but a more recent report by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security found that Pakistan still lags far behind most countries in the world when it comes to mobile phone use among women, at 33%. By contrast, the Georgetown report put cell phone use among women in other South Asian countries at much higher levels: Nepal at 77%, Sri Lanka at 72%, India at 71%, Bangladesh at 62%, and Afghanistan at 53%.
Simply put, Pakistan is a mobile phone access laggard when it comes to women.
It’s an issue worth exploring. In addition to the economic opportunity mobile phones can generate, studies also indicate that women feel safer when they have them, and also feel more empowered within their families.
One area of relative success in Pakistan has been the program to deliver cash to the poorest women. In a study of the program, known as the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), the researcher Atika Kemal wrote:
Every quarter, 5.4m women from low-income households in Pakistan receive welfare payments using digital means. The use of digital tools, such as the Benazir Debit Card – which is embedded with a chip carrying the user’s information – and phone texts, is intended to make the system of receiving payments more convenient and safer for women to use.
My research shows it also has the unexpected effect of raising the status of women by granting them more decision-making powers, both within their households and in the political sphere.
Programs like BISP provide a vital safety net for the poorest households in Pakistan. By digitizing the payments, women with no history or prospect of holding a bank account can now make withdrawals from ATMs or banking agents, and have taken their first steps toward financial inclusion. Many women use mobile phones to receive a text message with a pin number to access their monthly funds. This is still a primitive form of mobile money usage, but it is a first step.
In 2015, Pakistan rolled out a financial inclusion plan through the year 2020 to be led by the country’s central bank, the State Bank of Pakistan. In that initial report, it found that only 3% of women had access to mobile money.
As mobile money innovations grow, particularly those serving the base-of-the-pyramid consumer, Pakistan will be a rapidly growing market. If there is one thing that can be said for certain: There is no holding back the mobile phone wave; it has rolled across everywhere else in the world, and its use will grow among Pakistani women too. As more women gain access to mobile phones, Pakistani women might represent one of the fastest-growing market segments for mobile money opportunities in South Asia.