You probably want to spend less time on your phone – less time scrolling through Instagram, less time reading work emails, less time mindlessly playing Candy Crush – but what we rarely recognise is that having a mobile phone is a privilege many young people, especially girls, don’t have.
To coincide with International Day of the Girl Child, results of a new global study – Girls and Mobile – of 3,000 girls and boys from 25 countries has found that, while girls across the world might have more access to technology than we might think, there is a huge disparity. Boys are one and a half times more likely to own a mobile phone, while 52% of girls resort to borrowing phones from their friends, their family, or their boyfriends – a practice that can be unnecessarily secretive or unsafe.
In some parts of the world, girls are also subject to sexism simply for owning a mobile – while boys with phones are seen to be independent. Sixteen-year-old Asale from Malawi told researchers, “When a girl has a phone, people say she has started prostitution. If a boy has a phone, that means he is communicating with this friends.” Some girls who answered the survey believe these negative perceptions and think that owning a mobile phone would indeed be a bad thing for them. In Malawi and Rwanda, girls are taught to think that owning a phone means they will have contact with men and that they could end up with an unwanted pregnancy as a result.
The solution to avoiding risks lies in educating young girls about how to stay safe on their phones and online – an impossible task if they can’t access the technology
Often, it’s the girl’s parents who won’t allow her to have a mobile phone. They – somewhat correctly – think giving their daughters access to technology will be risky and expose her to the dangers of contact with older men. Simultaneously, parents who do allow phones cite safety as their main reason for doing so. The solution to avoiding these risks lies in educating young girls about how to stay safe on their phones and online – an impossible task if they can’t access the technology.
But why is it important that girls are able to use phones safely? The girls surveyed who did own phones were more likely to own smartphones than a standard one – that means they have access to the internet, which means access to information. And access to information empowers young girls to learn, to create, to achieve. To become leaders.
The recommendations of the study are prescriptive and easily implemented – introduce tech-literacy classes in schools; design platforms with safety in mind; teach men and boys (often the gatekeepers of phones) how to dispel cultural myths around girls and mobile phones; give girls the space and time to be creative and discover tech. It might be an issue we don’t think about enough, but it may be one we can solve.