Last week, Panoply Digital were in Bangladesh, working with Praekelt Foundation and the Girl Effect to explore ways of reaching adolescent girls through mobile platforms. It was wonderful to be back in Bangladesh – I recently moved to London last year after seven happy years living and working in Dhaka working on mobile solutions for women. While we were in Dhaka, we met with many different organisations and had many fascinating discussions. One question that came up again and again was ‘how many women in Bangladesh have access to mobile?’ I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that far fewer women than men have access to mobile: I’ve written before about how social and cultural norms in a predominantly patriarchal society coupled with questions around cost and connectivity means that far fewer Bangladeshi women have access to mobile than men. What is (relatively) surprising is that different empirical studies conducted in Bangladesh by different organisations (all of which are methodologically sound and robust) have different numbers for women’s level of access, ranging from almost 50% to hovering around the 20% mark.
I think some of this may be due to higher numbers in urban areas, which may skew the results, or because there may be different definitions of what ‘access’ is – is it owning your own mobile, owning a SIM but not a handset, owning a handset but not a SIM, or owning neither but borrowing both? This was something that GSMA Connected Women has tried to address in their recent large-scale research study into women’s access to, and use of mobile, in eleven countries (although Bangladesh was not one of them).
However, what is interesting in the Bangladesh case is that while everyone is agreed that there is definitely a gender digital divide, the exact number of that gender digital divide is has not been conclusively defined yet. I think this is a symptom of the relative lack of data around the women’s segment in Bangladesh, particularly rural, young women who are traditionally harder to reach; again, something I’ve written about before elsewhere.
What was amazing from all of our meetings in Dhaka, however, was while there was acknowledgment that organisations had different stats, there was also a sense of willingness to share this data with each other, and see if the different data sets could plug the gaps to come up with a more rounded sense of what exactly is happening around women and mobile access in Bangladesh. This was extremely encouraging to see – I’m all for collaboration if it helps us reach the most important people in this: highly vulnerable Bangladeshi adolescent girls. While of course some of this data may be commercially sensitive, particularly for a mobile operator, the fact is that in order to work towards more digital inclusion for women, any organization working in this space is going to need to understand the target audience inside out – not an easy feat - which means having data that gives both breadth and depth. And that in turn means that data sharing is going to be a necessity. Easier said that done, of course, but as the African proverb goes, ‘Alone, we go faster. Together, we go further.’