Security and harassment on mobile phones: A growing concern for women in emerging markets

This is a guest blog by Dominica Lindsey, former Senior Manager of Research Strategy and Evaluation, GSMA Connected Women, who co-authored the recent report “Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries“. 

As more and more of the world’s population begin to use mobile phones, and as mobile internet and social media increase in popularity, we can’t ignore the uncomfortable truth that the mobile can be another channel through which women experience harassment.
Here in the UK, we often hear news stories about women’s personal selfies being shared without their consent, or young teenage girls becoming victims of ‘cyberbullying’.

Unfortunately, this is not only an issue in Western markets. One of the most surprising findings for me in our recent study, “Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries”, was the rise of mobile-related security and harassment issues for women in countries as diverse as Mexico, Egypt, and China. This includes being harassed by men or sales agents on a mobile phone, fearing for one’s personal safety when carrying a mobile phone, or other security concerns such as fraud.

In fact, across our 11 sample countries, women identified security and harassment issues as the third greatest barrier to them owning or using a mobile phone, behind cost and network quality and coverage issues.

Perhaps most striking was the extent to which women feared being contacted by strangers on a mobile, and how this was usually a greater barrier for women than for men. In our survey, between 19% and 76% of women in each country said this was an issue, and whilst it was a similar concern for men and women in 4 of our sample countries, more women than men reported it as a concern in the other 7 countries—from Colombia to India to Kenya (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Note: Sample sizes for women n=755 to 862 and for men n=199 to 312. Actual question asked was: “Now we are going to talk about some possible reasons that might be preventing you from using a mobile phone or using a mobile phone more often or for more varied usages than you are today. Please tell me the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statements: “I am/would be contacted by strangers”.
Source: GSMA Connected Women, 2015, “Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries”.

One of these countries was Jordan, where only 23% of men but 58% of women in our survey said calls or texts from strangers is a barrier to them owning or using a mobile phone. I was fortunate enough to attend some of the focus groups, where I heard men discuss the practice of dialling random numbers just to speak with women. In the women’s focus groups, they described their frustration—and often fear—when they receive calls from male strangers or are contacted by men on social media apps.

“If, for example, you dialled the wrong number and you got a female voice by mistake, you keep dialling the wrong number in order to harass that girl. What if her brother picked up the phone, or her husband? They might not believe their wives and daughters and that can cause huge problems. They might suspect the girl in all cases.” – 38-year-old male focus group participant, Amman, Jordan

“I am older and married and I still get people harassing me on the internet, and this is dangerous. However, I have learned to block the unwanted numbers and this is a good thing.” – 30-year-old female hairdresser, Amman, Jordan

These stories are not unique to Jordan—they were an issue in many other countries in our study, too. Sadly, these practices can deter women from using mobile phones, and cause tension in the family, especially if women are suspected of being willing victims. Husbands and parents can place constraints on women’s mobile use—forbidding them to have a Facebook account, post their photo on WhatsApp, or even from having a mobile phone altogether.

As more and more women own mobile phones, and as mobile internet and social media become more widespread, security and harassment issues are going to become even more important for women around the world.

Mobile phones can help women feel safer
On a more positive note, mobile phones can also help women feel safer, such as allowing them to contact relatives in an emergency. In our study, 68%–94% of women in every country said a mobile phone helps them feel safer, or would help them feel safer if they were fortunate enough to have one.

There are a number of innovative services already out there that help women to avoid harassment and feel more secure when using a mobile phone. These include simple call-blocking services, apps that allow women to automatically contact relatives in an emergency at the press of a button, and services that help women to top-up privately and remotely without having to disclose their personal phone number to a mobile agent.

But we still need more research on how we can help women to stay safe and secure on their mobiles. Which services and apps have been the most successful and should be scaled up? Which ones are user-friendly for women who are less literate, or only have very basic handsets? To what extent do these services drive down churn among women customers? How can we teach women to be savvy and safe on mobile phones? At school? Through a trusted agent network? How do these issues vary by country?

If we want more women to own and benefit from mobile, this topic should be firmly on the agenda of mobile operators, the development community, policy-makers, and other mobile ecosystem stakeholders. Harassment or security concerns should not be a reason to stop women benefiting from all the life-changing opportunities a mobile can bring.