Mobile internet in Sri Lanka – The numbers do not add up

Polite, peace loving and welcoming was my experience of the people of Sri Lanka when I had the opportunity to visit last summer.

Sri Lanka is enjoying economic success relative to neighbouring states, reporting an impressive average growth of 6.2% GDP per annum. With a population of 21.2 million, it is striving to become an upper middle-income country.1

Over 70% of the population have a mobile connection, 90% have 3G mobile network coverage and smartphone uptake is growing rapidly, representing over 46% of unique subscribers (Q2 2017).2  Sri Lankan women have attained relatively high levels of gender equality compared to many surrounding countries.3 Women participate in the labour force at comparative rates to men. Unemployment for women is stable at 7.5%.4 Literacy is near universal, with female literacy rates (+15 years) at 92%.5

Lack of perceived relevance and affordability are preventing Sri Lankan women from using mobile internet

When it comes to accessing technology and the internet, women are still far behind. The internet gender gap is as high as 40% for women (+15).6 To try and better understand this issue, I talked to the women of Kalutara, a market town 40 km south of Colombo, with a population of around 38,000.

Umesha, 24, works at an agency post office. The youngest of four sisters, she is the only daughter supporting her mother after her father passed away. Besides helping customers with services like photocopy and courier, she handles on average 200 customers per day, activating and recharging mobile phones. “There are equal number(s) of women and men who come to my shop for recharge. But more men ask for data packs, whereas women are only recharging for voice services”, she shared.

Another woman retailer, Shyamali, 42, has been selling mobile recharge services for the last five years. She also sells small snacks and makes tea for customers. “I have two children and I come to my shop early in the morning after finishing the morning chores. The whole day I am attending customers. Where is the time to look into the internet?”

Nadishika, a retailer also close by, shared, “Many women come to me to learn how to use low cost calls and messages on their mobile phone because their relatives are working overseas and they want to talk to them without spending a lot of money on calling”. Over 1 million Sri Lankans work in the Middle East.7

It became clear during my visit that the main barriers to mobile internet access for these Sri Lankan women appeared to be related to relevance and affordability. Unlike in other countries in South Asia, a lack of permission from gatekeepers such as husbands did not prove a major barrier to mobile internet use – women who were not using the internet did not tend to see the need to use it. These barriers and others relating to mobile internet use are described in more detail in our recent report based on research in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries.

What can be done to close the mobile internet gender gap in Sri Lanka?

Action by Sri Lankan mobile operators demonstrates how stakeholders can address these issues and improve digital inclusion for women. Both Mobitel and Dialog Axiata have collaborated with GSMA Connected Women and committed to reduce the gender gap in mobile internet use in their customer bases in Sri Lanka.

Dialog Axiata and Mobitel are focussing on educating rural women to use mobile internet and raise awareness of the benefits for them, their families and communities. Dialog’s ICT Programme, endorsed by the Sri Lankan Ministry for Women and Child Affairs, has hosted a series of workshops for women, discussing their personal development, online safety and entrepreneurial opportunities.

In May 2017, Mobitel introduced Data Gifting to encourage more women to use mobile internet. They recognised that not all Sri Lankan women understood how the internet could benefit them and when faced with a choice, were unlikely to spend on data to access the service. This offer encourages a family member to share their unused data with their loved one.  A ‘try before you buy’ solution.

As mobile operators continue to include women in all aspects of mobile internet use, there is one number that will add up; mobile’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s economic growth.8 If 6.5% GDP can be achieved with a gender gap of 58%, imagine the possibilities if that gap is closed.

1. UN (population database) 1
2. GSMA Intelligence, 2017 2
3.The Global Gender Gap Report, World Economic Forum, 2017 3
4. World Bank, Gender Data Portal, Sri Lanka. (Women in the labour force: 70% low-income and 52% high-income roles).  4
5. World Bank (literacy and financial inclusion) 5
6. Gallup World Poll, 2017 6
7. HRW, World Report, Sri Lanka 7
8. GSMA, The Mobile Economy 2018 8


This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.