Mobile Phone Type Widens the Gender Gap in Rural Africa

a group of four fashionable cool African American guys students communicating on the street looking at smartphone video games

If you can’t reach your female relatives in rural Africa, it’s probably because they prefer to turn off their phone and conserve the battery life than keep them powered when not in use. And that is because rural African women are more like to carry handsets that are inferior to men’s.

Like in other areas of digital access, there is a hardware quality gender divide according to  Susan Wyche and Jennifer Olson of Michigan State University.  While men are likely to own newer handsets or smartphones, their study on rural Kenya showed women are more likely to  carry secondhand phones often passed on by their urban-based family members, husbands or boyfriends used phone when they upgrade to entry level smartphones.  

Susan and Jennifer found that rural Kenyan women predominantly carry feature phones which provide voice, text messaging, and basic multimedia and internet capabilities. The study said the phones are often riddled with maintenance problems, including  poor batteries, broken screens, missing buttons, worn number pads, are difficult to hold, so women carry them in purses worn around their necks, tucked into their bras, or folded into cloths tied around their heads or waists.

“Batteries present a significant challenge to women’s ownership of mobile phones. Their old, secondhand phones usually don’t come with the original battery, if one at all.

“Replacement phone batteries are usually inexpensive, but low quality and tend to become bloated over time due to heat and overcharging. This means that most batteries will not hold a charge after a few months, and women need to buy two or three batteries per year, adding to the expense of owning a mobile phone,” the researchers wrote.

During Susan and Jennifer’s fieldwork, they found that rural Kenyan women were reluctant to use their mobile devices for any length of time to preserve battery life, and turned off phones at night and when not in use.


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