Mobile phones, internet and gender in Myanmar

Less than two years ago, the first low cost SIM appeared in Myanmar at a price of USD 1.50 in August 2014.  Prior to 2012, during military rule, SIM cards used to cost USD 2,000.  According to GSMA Intelligence, Myanmar was the third least penetrated mobile market in the world, and one of the few located outside of the low-income markets in Eastern Africa.1

The Ministry of Posts and Telecom (MPT) commenced offering mobile services in 2013. In January 2014 Ooreedo and Telenor were granted licenses to provide mobile services. The Myanmar government set a target of 22.8 per cent mobile phone penetration by the end of its fiscal year in March 2014, rising to 50 per cent by March 2015 and 75-80 per cent by March 2016.

GSMA Connected Women and LIRNEasia have recently published a report that focuses on women’s access and use of mobile phones in this context.

The report findings draw upon a nationally representative survey of over 12,000 respondents, plus deeper qualitative research on an additional 91 women and men in one urban location (Yangon) and one rural location (Pantanaw).


Access and Ownership

According to the research, 40 per cent of Myanmar’s population aged 15-65 owned a mobile phone and 30 per cent of the population of the country aged 15-65 have never used a mobile phone.

Like other low- to middle-income countries where women tend to be left out of the mobile revolution, women are 29 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men (Figure 1).   The gender gap in ownership was higher among low-income households. It was more common for women in low-income households to share a household phone than to own one. Access to the shared phone is also limited because it tends to be taken out during the day by the person in the family, usually a male, who is working.

Figure 1: Mobile Phone Ownership: % of Myanmar’s population aged 15 – 65


Mobile ownership was highest among those who had employment. Urban areas have given a perception that even the very poorest own a mobile phone, i.e. 83 per cent of respondents in urban areas owned a phone. In rural and low income households access is generally through shared household phones or borrowed phones.

Decision Dynamics

The decision to get connected is a two stage process: firstly to actually buy a mobile; and secondly the type of handset/SIM to purchase. The trend seen in Myanmar is that these ‘big’ decisions are dominated by the household head, spouse, elder and any adult children.  The practice of consulting with elders is part of their cultural heritage as per the research.

Men have a more prominent role in the household based on the religious belief that men can become a Buddha. This ideology is often taken for granted by women and not considered discrimination.

Observations showed that women play a role in deciding whether to buy a mobile phone, but they do not typically get involved in the decisions on type of handset/SIM to purchase.  This is because they feel they lack product knowledge and there is a perception that men have more technical expertise in this matter. Furthermore, of the women (aged between 16-25) interviewed, almost half stay at home, i.e. do not work. Therefore, even if someone in their household does have a mobile phone it tends to be absent during the day – usually with the working male member of the family.

On the other hand, in predominantly urban areas, young, educated women are typically confidently at par with men in this respect and came across as being mobile brand savvy.

Usage and Choice of Handset

Despite the cost barriers, basic phones are perceived as low quality. Even second-hand phones are not usually a consideration. Now, owning a mobile is linked to social status.  People buy phones because they are too embarrassed to borrow them or to avoid feeling left out. There is a strong desire to be seen as ‘modern’ and not ‘outdated’; as well as financially capable and independent.

According to the baseline survey, there is a negligible difference between the number of men and women who own smartphones (or ‘touchphones’): men at 65 per cent compared to women at 64 per cent of smartphone owners.

Initial adoption motives were related to voice calls – business and staying in touch with family; or for security or emergency communication. Once connected to data, the usage expands to business communication and coordination. However, the report highlights that the data usage in general is quite low. It is slightly more common for female phone owners (59 per cent) than male phone owners (52 per cent) to use data services. One-third of the mobile owners have used at least one data service. Both men and women want phones that are internet capable because of a high demand for social media apps (e.g. Facebook and Viber) and the growing trend of gaming.

Digital Skills and Perception of Internet

People who have not yet used the internet tend to have a negative perception about it – for example inappropriate online content and flirting. There is also a question of personal relevance because a large number of people do not know what the internet is.

Much of women’s understanding of internet is shaped by Facebook and chat applications such as Viber and Bee Talk.

Women tend to rely heavily on others, mainly men, to pick up knowledge about the different apps. Women in the rural areas came across as being too shy to ask for help – so lag behind in the adoption of digital consumerism.

Price sensitivities also play a big role in the decision to adopt new products. In most low-income households, the choice for connecting to data is weighed heavily against other financial priorities such as daily necessities, children’s education, etc.

Some of the key recommendations that can be highlighted from the report are:

(i) Demand Stimulation

Mobile Operators: Introduce more creative pricing to appeal to women’s price sensitivity, call patterns and daily routines (e.g. creative tariff plans, innovative data packages, low-denomination top-ups, bite-sized or on- demand data pricing and emergency credit services). This helps better manage airtime and data expenses. Develop a clear and transparent pricing policy including warning for data charges.  Continue to design competitively priced and more durable, more affordable smartphones.

Handset Manufacturers: Develop easier-to-use versions of popular handset brands.

Financial Institutions: Banks and other financial institutions are encouraged to offer mechanisms such as microloans to lower the cost of handsets.

(ii) Content Development

All the major stakeholders in the ecosystem should work towards creating an enabling environment for local app development, specifically locally relevant and accessible apps for women. 

(iii) Digital Skills and Literacy Development

Mobile Operators and NGOs should consider collaboration to create digital skills learning content and facilitate the dissemination of skills training, e.g. via social media, grass-root networks, agent networks, etc.