Sizing the mobile gender gap in refugee contexts

GSMA research has repeatedly demonstrated that women are less likely than men to own a phone and to access mobile internet. The GSMA 2019 Mobile Gender Gap report demonstrates that women in low-and middle-income countries are 10 per cent less likely than men to own a phone and 23 per cent less likely to use mobile internet.

Until now, this gender gap has not been quantified in refugee contexts. The gap is important; humanitarian contexts can exacerbate pre-existing barriers and stigmas. This may mean that women and girls are excluded from aid distributions that they are entitled to. This is especially true as humanitarian aid is increasingly digitised. Unless the mobile gender gap is closed, humanitarians run the risk of compounding this exclusion.

The GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) programme recently sized the gap in mobile access, ownership and usage between refugee men and women in its case study on Bidi Bidi Settlement (Uganda) and Kiziba Camp (Rwanda). The case study also highlights the experiences of refugee women with mobile technology, to understand the benefits that it can bring, as well as the current barriers to more wide-scale adoption, providing recommendations for key stakeholders on how to close the gap.


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There is a notable gender gap in both refugee contexts

The GSMA survey with refugees found that women are 13 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in Kiziba and 47 per cent in Bidi Bidi.  As Figure 1 demonstrates, the gender gap is even higher in regards to mobile internet usage in the last 3 months (89 per cent in Bidi Bidi and 54 per cent in Uganda). Based on population figures for these two settings, closing the mobile gender gap for ownership would result in an additional 16,000 women owning phones.


Women are disproportionately relying on borrowing in both contexts

In Kiziba, women are 25 per cent more likely to borrow a handset than men and in Bidi Bidi they are more than twice as likely. They are also notably less likely to own a smart or feature phone (55 per cent less likely in Bidi Bidi and 30 per cent less likely in Kiziba). This has an impact on the way humanitarians are able to deliver mobile-enabled services aimed at women as they have a much more limited relationship with connectivity.


There are unique barriers to women accessing mobile phones

Women highlighted a number of ways in which they are excluded from mobile connectivity due (amongst others) to:

  • Literacy: women are less likely than men to be able to read and write, excluding them from valuable text-based services such as SMS and the internet;
  • Digital literacy: women report being less able to use technology than men and being less confident doing so. Many are asking for support in building these skills; and
  • More restricted means: Due to fewer livelihood opportunities in these contexts for men than women, they are often reliant on others for money to buy handsets and airtime.

Encouragingly, these major barriers are all addressable if stakeholders work together to provide education and livelihood opportunities that target women specifically, in socially and culturally appropriate ways.


Women identify a multitude of ways that mobile connectivity benefits them

Women in both settings who are users of mobile phones spoke about how they enable them to keep in contact with friends and family spread across their home country, other camps and resettled on other continents, which is most valuable to them. Some women spoke about how having a phone makes them feel safer, even such simple things as a handset with a torch made them feel more able to move about the camp at night. And some women spoke about their phones equipping them to derive a living by running businesses as diverse as groceries, mushroom farming and brewing beer.


Bridging the gap

The case study contains recommendations for humanitarian organisations and mobile network operators for how they can work together to close the mobile gender gap in these refugee contexts. We encourage others to take up the mantle and size the gender gaps in the contexts they work in, and see how these learnings may be extrapolated to support women and girls gain equal access to mobile connectivity. M4H will be conducting further research on the experiences of forcibly displaced women with mobile technology and we invite you to watch this space.


Download the report


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