Gender Equality in Your Hands: Mobile Phones Empower Women Worldwide
POLITICAL SCIENCES |

Gender Equality in Your Hands: Mobile Phones Empower Women Worldwide

MOBILE PHONE ACCESS IS ASSOCIATED WITH LOWER GENDER INEQUALITY, HIGHER CONTRACEPTIVE UPTAKE, AND LOWER MATERNAL AND CHILD MORTALITY, A ERC FUNDED STUDY COVERING 209 COUNTRIES AND PUBLISHED ON PNAS FINDS. THE RELATION IS STRONGER IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

Putting mobile phones in women’s hands could be a cost-effective way to support sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the less- and least-developed countries, according to the latest study of the ERC-funded DISCONT project (Discontinuity in Household and Family Formation), led by Francesco Billari, Full Professor of Demography at Bocconi University.
 
A macro-level analysis covering 209 countries between 1993 and 2017 shows that access to mobile phones is positively associated with multiple indicators linked to global social development, such as:
 
          lower gender inequalities,
  enhanced contraceptive use,
  lower maternal and child mortality.

The link between mobile phone access and female empowerment is stronger in less- and least-developed countries.
 
“Our results”, Prof. Billari says, “suggest that deploying mobile-phone technology might serve to complement the role of other development processes such as educational expansion and economic growth, rather than substitute for it”.
 
In an effort to better understand the channels that allow mobile phones to empower women, the authors conducted an individual level analysis on 100,000 women from 7 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) between 2015 and 2017. In this area, the demographic transition is slowly underway, with slow fertility decline and infant and maternal mortality remaining at very high levels, while the adoption of mobile phones is fast spreading.
 
Results indicate that, other things being equal, women who own a mobile phone have a 1% higher probability of being involved in decision-making processes about contraception, 2% higher likelihood of using modern contraceptive methods, and a 3% higher likelihood of knowing where to get tested for HIV with respect to women who do not own a phone. These effects are per se sizeable, as they are comparable to, if not bigger than, the effects of living in an urban area vs. living in a rural area. Similar effects are estimated on higher overall decision-making power within the household. Improved knowledge and enhanced decision-making power are the likely pathways through which the macro-level results emerge. The  analysis of individual data also confirms that the effects are stronger in poorer and more isolated areas.
 
Mobile phones can thus play a crucial role in ensuring healthy lives and promoting individual well-being at all ages (SDG 3—“good health and well-being”), and achieving gender equality by empowering girls and women (SDG 5—“gender equality”), as ways to ultimately reduce poverty in all its forms (SDG 1—“no poverty”) and achieve key population targets. Still, despite the proliferation of mobile networks, digital divides by gender and socioeconomic strata persist in the developing world. Women are less likely to own mobile phones on their own, use them less often when they have access, and have poorer ICT skills compared to men, thus creating second-level (skill-related) digital divides on top of first-level (access-related) ones.
 
“Investing in cheaper equitable access, enabling independent ownership, and focusing on ICT skill development, especially among women, can thus forge an even more promising pathway to leverage mobile phones for attaining sustainable development”, lead author Valentina Rotondi (University of Oxford and Bocconi’s Dondena Centre) concludes.
 
Valentina Rotondi, Ridhi Kashyap, Luca Maria Pesando, Simone Spinelli, Francesco Billari, “Leveraging Mobile Phones to Attain Sustainable Development”, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 1, 2020, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909326117.

by Fabio Todesco

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