Same Village, Different Women – Nuances emerge as poor, rural women discuss mobile phones and DFS

Lilavati, a housewife from Lalganj village, located in the Mirzapur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), knows a lot about mobile phones beyond basic voice calls. She knows how a mobile phone could be used as a calculator or a calendar, or even to log onto the internet to find out what dates the festivals are this year.

She can even identify the mobile towers near her village.  “Airtel has the highest tower here. On the other side there is BSNL, Hutch and a new company, Uninor.”

I met Lilavati (a pseudonym) in late August when she took part in a focus group discussion conducted by InterMedia, where I work, in collaboration with the Grameen Foundation.  The purpose of the research was to learn about poor, rural women’s use of mobile phones anddigital financial services (DFS), as well as the barriers to the expanded use of these services.  We spoke to women who came from low-income households, some with five to 10 family members per household, living on less than $2 a day.  (A link to the full report is available here)

 “Have you heard of sending money through a mobile phone?” I asked Lilavati.  “Yes, I have,” she responded. “You have to use an account number and the money is sent, and the receiver can go withdraw the money. When you receive a message you know that money has gone.”

But, Lilavati has never owned her own mobile phone. Her husband and children do, and she borrows from them or from neighbors when she needs to talk to family members living outside Lalganj. In fact, it’s rare for any woman in rural parts of eastern UP to personally own a phone.  Access is typically shared at the discretion of other family members, which often means only sporadic usage is possible.   

In addition to having phone access, Lilavati, along with a few other village women, was able to join a credit and savings group operated by CASHPOR Micro Credit. CASHPOR is a nonprofit organization that provides credit and savings accounts to low-income women in eastern UP and Bihar State via mobile phone-assisted systems. Members don’t have to own a phone, but since payment entries are digitized, they require access to one. When I asked Lilavati how she knew so much about mobile phones, without having her own phone, she said CASHPOR weekly meetings and her school-aged children had added to her awareness.

We spent eight days across four districts of UP, conducting focus groups with women ranging from those like Lilavati to those who had never held a phone in their hands.[1] They were grouped into separate “user categories”- women who have access to mobile phones; women, like Lilavati, who have access to phonesand use mobile financial services; and women who do not have access to phones or mobile financial services. 

A few key takeaways:

Even within the low-income rural women segment, access and understanding of mobile phone services tends to reflect socio-economic differences. Women like Lilavati tend to be the most socially and economically empowered women in their villages. Though still from poor households, they are nevertheless at the higher end of the low-income spectrum, giving these households more access to goods and services and greater awareness of financial services. They are more likely to have a say in financial decision-making at home. Though they often lack education themselves, they learn a lot from their children who are more likely to attend school or college.

By contrast, those women without access to a mobile phone are more likely to come from the very poorest parts of the village. They live in homes constructed out of semi-permanent materials. Many of these women have to ask male members of their households (e.g., husband, father) for permission to leave their homes by themselves. (Some of the women who participated in the focus groups said they made up an excuse so they could participate.)  Many of these women said they have minimal understanding of how to use a mobile phone let alone use a mobile phone to access broader digital financial services.

Some women don’t have access to a cell phone even though there is one in their household.  Focus group participant Vimla (a pseudonym), for example, told me her husband doesn’t see the need for her to understand mobile phones. She paraphrased her husband’s main message:  “I’m here when you need to use it, so what’s the point of teaching you how to use it?”

In many cases, those without phone access consider this an appropriate situation. In stark contrast to Lilavati, Vimla wholeheartedly agreed with her husband’s view. She was petrified that something would go wrong if she tried using the phone. Vimla and others like her said they felt the same way about making financial transactions at a bank — it was impossible to imagine doing it themselves. They said because they are not educated, they fear that they would accidentally sign away money and wouldn’t even know about it.

The bottom line:

Mobile operators and development organizations promoting the use of DFS among rural women in India need to address socio-cultural conditioning as much as the level of skills and knowledge.  As the Grameen Foundation’s Debbie Deapoints out in a separate blog, local nuances are important for mobile network operators and developmental organizations to understand as they introduce mobile financial service offerings to these women.

When Lilavati’s focus group session ended, she stood waiting in the room to talk to me. “You say you are from a research organization. Why is this information about my credit group, my spending habits, and my mobile phone use of any interest to anyone? Are you sure you are not here to cheat us in some way?”

When I explained that the information we collected from her helped identify the needs of women like her, and that this information could help design better services for her, she seemed satisfied. She smiled and said, “as long as it helps me and others here.”

[1] Groups were conducted with men, too, for comparison.