In Kenya, Women's Smartphone Access Is Controlled By Men

By Holly Brockwell on at

The differences in the way men and women use technology have been studied lots of times, but a new report from Mozilla shows that in some countries, that difference is downright depressing.

The Digital Skills Observatory is a 12-month collaboration between Mozilla (the dudes who make Firefox) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They spent a year working with 200 people across seven regions of Kenya, all of whom had low incomes and were experiencing the internet for the first time through smartphones. Mozilla wanted to find out the challenges those people face when going online, and how to overcome them with skills and education.

The report has many interesting findings and is well worth a read in itself, but one of the most significant is the revelation that for many women in Kenya, their technology use is controlled by men.

Men seemed to be in charge of getting women online in the first place, with women three times more likely to get their first smartphone as a present and almost three times more likely to choose a phone their partner weighed in on, "usually in the form of financial support."

It's not hard to imagine that someone else paying for your phone would affect your choices – you can't necessarily get the one you want when you're beholden to someone else. And if that someone has less than your best interests at heart, they might coerce you to get one that doesn't do all the things you want it to.

As Mozilla puts it:

"This financial reliance can severely limit technology adoption by women, as they have less decision-making power and fewer opportunities to access technology."

It gets worse. Once they've got the phone, the way they use it is constantly policed by the men in their lives, with depressing consequences:

Some female participants were stopped from using services like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp by suspicious husbands.

One participant from Nairobi, who had received her smartphone as a gift from her partner, got into an argument with him which resulted in her smartphone being taken away and sold.

Why the suspicion? Perhaps because the men were up to no good themselves:

Both men and women admit that their partner inspects their phone usage, but more men admit to keeping smartphone-related information from their partner, like secret SIM cards, messages, or photos.

So how do we help those women learn more about technology and gain some independence when they're under the thumb of controlling husbands? Mozilla says the best way is through on-device learning, in other words teaching women through the phone itself. They tested this with a Whatsapp contact and a standalone learning app, and found that women were more comfortable with this approach than men, and learnt especially well through Whatsapp.

Assuming they were allowed to use it, of course. Fixing ingrained societal sexism might take a little longer.

Main image: WOCinTechChat