How Mobile Gender Gap is Hindering DFS Penetration in South Asian Economies

Over the last decade, India has seen a tremendous increase in the number of internet service providers and users. Secure internet servers per million persons have grown more than a hundredfold from 1.66 in 2010 to 187.80 in 2018, as per the recent World Bank Netcraft Secure Server Survey. Likewise, the World Bank’s Global Findex Report has revealed that, with the progress of the internet, mobile devices and Fintech, the percentage of people utilizing the internet for digital financial services (DFS) has also increased from 7.5 per cent in 2010 to 34.5 per cent in 2017. The current distribution of mobile usage among men and women in India is depicted in Fig. 2. It shows that young adults are the most prominent users in rural and urban parts of the country. However, the digital divide between male and female users has worsened within the same period. This is evident from the 2:1 ratio of male to female internet users as per IAMAI’s 2021 report. It can also be seen that the mobile gender gap is poorer in rural areas than in urban areas.

Figure 1. Age and Gender-wise distribution of internet users in India
(Source: IAMAI, Internet adoption in India 2021)

A decade ago, India had a very low financial inclusion rate. But, the World Bank’s Global Findex Database estimates that the percentage of people (aged 15-24) who have an account (either alone or jointly) at a bank or financial institution has climbed significantly from 27 per cent in 2011 to around 71 per cent in 2017. A large part of this stupendous increase is attributable to DFS penetration in the remotest parts of the country. Since 2009 India has added digital components to its financial infrastructure. However, these new digital components require modern mobile handsets and access to the internet to avail themselves. In order to characterize the differences in the ease with which people may access and use information and communication technology, as well as the threat that this poses to social and national cohesion, the term “digital divide” was coined by the United Nations Development Programme. Those who remain on the analogue side of the digital divide may find it challenging to increase their productivity at work or fully participate in civic activities. Furthermore, this will only expand the gap, creating a downward spiral.

In the middle- and low-income countries, approximately 58 per cent of women have access to mobile internet services. On the other hand, women have less access to it than men, by more than 234 million. While the overall gender difference in mobile ownership has remained relatively unaltered since 2017, the gender gap in smartphone penetration has narrowed for the first time, thanks to South Asia, where these gaps have continuously been the greatest. Women are now 7 per cent less likely than males to own a mobile phone in low- and middle-income nations, resulting in 143 million fewer women mobile phone owners than men. Women are also 15 per cent less likely than men to own a smartphone, down from 20 per cent in 2019.

Recent Trends in Digital Gender Divide

Globally, the gender gap on mobile internet has shrunk from 27 per cent in 2017 to 15 per cent in 2021. This decrease is particularly pronounced in South Asia, where the gender gap in mobile internet usage has shrunk from 50 per cent in 2017 to 36 per cent in 2021. In line with the qualitative findings from India and Kenya, the COVID-19 outbreak had affected the use of mobile internet and smartphones by women. Women are more likely than males to access the internet exclusively through their mobile phones, emphasizing the necessity of expanding mobile access for women and closing the mobile gender gap. On the contrary, mobile phone ownership has remained relatively steady, with 83 per cent of women possessing a phone compared to 90 per cent of men. This corresponds to 143 million fewer women owning a cell-phone than men.

Nowadays, mobile phone owners do much more with them, such as video calling, listening to music, watching videos on the internet, and so on. There is, nevertheless, a persisting gender disparity, with female mobile phone owners using a limited choice of services than male mobile phone owners. Female smartphone owners are practically on the same level as male smartphone owners regarding mobile internet uptake and the range of mobile services women use across the nations surveyed, which is encouraging. As illustrated in Fig. 1, the percentage of women users accessing DFS and related benefits in India is not a priority for women using the internet. While access to educational content is critical, women should also be educated regarding the DFS through the internet. The gender gap in mobile usage awareness continues to narrow across all nations tested, with both men and women becoming more aware of the technology.

Figure 2. Major reasons for using mobiles and computers

Yet, a significant number of mobile users who are aware of mobile internet do not utilize it due to constraints such as literacy and skills associated with more diverse usage, device cost, and safety and security concerns, to name a few. Female mobile users are also less capable of learning a new activity independently on their handsets than their male counterparts. However, after they have completed a task, their confidence in repeating it is nearly equal to that of male users. This makes a strong case that the mobile gender gap is responsible for restricting the penetration of DFS among women, especially in rural areas. As a result, it would be crucial to look into the impact of the pandemic on digital gender divide usage and ownership figures, particularly in rural areas. In this aspect, it is worth noting that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s mobile phone ownership and mobile internet use rose or remained stable in most nations in South Asia. However, how COVID-19 will affect these tendencies remains to be seen in the long run.

Impact of COVID-19

The gender disparity in mobile ownership remained largely stable throughout low- and middle-income groups, except for a minor decrease in South Asia. In 2020, an estimated 112 million more women in low- and middle-income groups began utilizing mobile internet. Shifting market dynamics, COVID-19 limits and lockdowns, along with other considerations, have augmented the need and required validation for womenfolk to be online. More research is needed to see if this pattern will continue if COVID is implemented. According to qualitative research data in the C3-DEF Survey, males used cellphones more than women during the COVID-19 pandemic to look for new jobs, pass the time, keep socially connected, and watch sports.

The research also revealed that due to pandemic constraints, there was a disparity in experience between mobile internet users who could no longer afford it and had to use it less and those who could continue to use it, thus deciding to use it more continue their lives online. During the pandemic, many used mobile internet to unwind and escape the stresses of life by listening to music and watching movies. While COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns have increased the need for connectivity, there are preliminary indications that the epidemic may disproportionately affect women’s handset ownership in some countries. This is particularly impeding to the penetration of DFS as most mobile-based financial apps run effectually on a smartphone.

On the other hand, evidence from India is not as encouraging. In the Indian subcontinent, only 38 per cent of women utilize mobile internet, compared to 58 per cent globally. Similarly, the gender disparity in mobile internet usage is a striking 36 per cent, the second biggest in the world only after Africa. The gender difference in mobile internet use in rural areas is even more prominent. The gender difference in urban regions is roughly 23 per cent, whereas it is nearly 39 per cent in rural ones. On the brighter side, women’s mobile internet knowledge in India has risen sharply from 19 per cent in 2017 to roughly 53 per cent in 2020, indicating that women are beginning to learn about the internet and its different applications.

Barriers in DFS Diffusion

The ability to read and write is a critical component in determining the gender disparity in mobile internet usage. The gender gap is narrower for literate men and women, but it widens dramatically for the illiterate majority of the population. Another factor in the study’s findings is the participant’s age, which influences the gender disparity. The gender difference is most significant among those over the age of 55, while it is the smallest among those under 35 years. For example, in Bangladesh, women between the ages of 18 and 24 are 39 per cent less likely than men their age to use mobile internet, while women over 55 are 82 per cent less likely than their male counterparts to do so. Other key elements influencing the gender divide include an individual’s work situation and any physical disability restricting their usage. Table 1, as shown under, ranks of barriers to technology access for men and women in South Asian countries.

Table 1. Top barriers to mobile internet use

(Source: Adapted from The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2021, GSMA)

Men and women mobile users in the examined markets rank literacy and computer abilities as the top barriers to their mobile internet adoption. This barrier comprises five sub-barriers, including functional literacy and digital abilities relevant to mobile devices. The most substantial issue raised by both male and female respondents is difficulty with reading and writing, followed by not knowing how to access the internet on a mobile device and not having enough time to study. More female respondents than males identify difficulty with reading and writing as a major hurdle in five of the eight nations examined. Fig. 3 depicts some of the major obstacles women face in obtaining mobile phone and internet service in rural India, as per the C3-DEF Survey.

Figure 3. Challenges facing Indian women in getting own mobile phone
(Source: C3-DEF Survey)

Addressing Digital Gender Divide

In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2021, India dropped 28 places to be ranked 140th out of 156 countries, making it the third-worst performer in South Asia. Unfortunately, as technology advances and becomes more critical in our daily lives, the gender disparity has only widened, even extending to virtual platforms. On the other hand, the Government has made various initiatives to alleviate the issue and has established several schemes and programmes to empower digitally marginalized populations in collaboration with its ministries. Over 1.96 crore people from rural areas have received digital literacy training via the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDSA). In 2013, the ICT@Schools programme was merged into the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan, resulting in the installation of computers and other digital infrastructure in nearly 85,000 schools across the country.

Similarly, the MHRD’s Operation Digital Board converts schools into digital classrooms, providing internet, digital tools, and e-learning resources, and the dissemination of e-content is enabled 24 hours a day, seven days a week through devices in educational centres, schools, and satellite communication technologies via another initiative called SWAYAM Prabha. The Government has also worked on digitalizing the country’s financial infrastructure. To this effect, it has built a network of three interconnected layers: a biometric identity database, simplified payments addressing and market-wide digital payments interoperability together called the India stack. Additionally, various DFS initiatives provided by financial institutions have also made it easier for individuals to complete financial transactions online from the remotest parts of the country. Fig. 4 below shows a holistic four-pronged way forward to address the mobile gender gap-related issues and close the digital divide.

Figure 4. A Holistic Solution for Digital Gender Divide

Clearly, many attempts have been made towards gender equality and bridging the gap; and Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Gender Equality) has also highlighted this fundamental concern. And despite the obvious push towards digitalization through initiatives like the Bharat Net, India does not yet have a visible, stated, formal announcement or document that categorically accepts and states that digital inclusion, mainstreaming, and empowerment of women is a critical path in bridging the gender development divide in a country where women account for a significant portion of the population. At the national and state levels, this emphasis on digitalization is missing in the education, health and DFS sectors. Closing the gender gap would require us to take advantage of the demographic dividend, engage society, economically empower households, and ensure equitable growth. As a result, the hindrance of digital gender difference can only be handled via sustained efforts, and the Government must identify the core reasons for the gender divide that exists in our country and work towards a holistic solution.


Carboni, I., Jefferie, N., Lindsey, D., Shanahan, M., Sibthorpe, C. Butler, C. & Lopez, M. (2021). Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report”. GSMA, London.

Gogoi, A. and Manzar, O. (2021). “Bridging the Digital Divide for Girls in India: Policy Brief”. C3-DEF, New Delhi.

(Views expressed in the blog are personal and not of any organization/institution)

By Mr. Anirban Pal & Dr. P.K.Singh; ARF group members

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