International Day of the Girl: Young women banned from using phones as they are seen to 'lead to unwanted pregnancy'

Girls around the world are being stopped from using technology because of sexist attitudes that suggest items such as mobile phones lead to male contact and unwanted pregnancy, a study found.

The research – the first ever comprehensive global study into adolescent girls and mobile technology – revealed many girls were shamed and stigmatised for simply using mobile technology, while deep-rooted societal prejudice curbs their access.

The study surveyed 3,000 young people aged between 13 and 19 across 25 countries – most of which were developing nations.

It found globally boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a smartphone than girls because shame drastically limits access for girls – meaning females are more likely to be forced to resort to unsafe and secretive behaviours in an attempt to gain access to technology.

Parents’ safety concerns trigger anxiety for girls and around half of the respondents cited it as the main reason they did not own a phone – saying that outweighed even the barrier of the price of a mobile device.

The “Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected” report, which was carried out by NGO Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation, was released on the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl on Thursday. It focused on India, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Bangladesh among other countries.

Girls raised concerns phones would make them “go astray” with those living in Malawi and Rwanda most likely to say that the technology would lead to male contact and ultimately unwanted pregnancy.

“We spoke to girls in Bangladesh who said people in the community say ‘girls who use phones are bad girls’ and people in Nigeria say ‘girls who use phones are morally corrupt’,” Zoe Dibb, evidence manager of Girl Effect, told The Independent.

“This stigmatisation leads to girls using phones in secret. This means if they encounter risks online or they are harassed on social media they have no one to turn to for help.”

The report found that in countries like India and Bangladesh, girls seen using phones are often subject to negative judgement from community members, meaning parents are more likely to bar access to a handset.

Girls who break rules around phones are also more likely to be punished by scolding, beatings, prohibited from going to school or even early marriage.

“If it’s a 15-year-old girl, she won’t be allowed to go out of her home, she will be beaten and her educational privileges will be taken from her. It can also happen that she is married off,” said a 17-year-old girl in India who took part in the research.

“We see that boys do not receive those punishments. In northern Nigeria where girls are very culturally restricted they are beaten and taken out of class but nothing will happen to a boy who uses a phone,” Ms Dibb added. “Girls there will keep their phones at friend’s houses and arrange specific times boys can call them.”

The study concluded that mobile technology was often used to restrict girls’ access to the same education, connectivity and ultimately knowledge as their male counterparts.

Nevertheless, Ms Dibb emphasised their ability to gain access to phones in all manner of covert and creative ways.

The study also found girls’ mobile phone access in developing nations to be higher than expected; while only 44 per cent of girls interviewed in the study say they own a phone, more than half (52 per cent) access phones by borrowing one.

Phones make girls feel more connected, provide access to education, decrease boredom, increase access to restricted information and serve to boost their confidence, according to the report.

The research also focused on the gender gap that exists in terms of digital literacy – finding in countries such as Nigeria and Malawi, boys are more likely to use a phone for a more advanced, sophisticated variety of activities than girls, such as apps like WhatsApp and Facebook and searching the internet for news or finding jobs.

In stark contrast, girls in these locations are more likely to be limited to using phones for more basic everyday tasks that require lower levels of tech knowledge such as ringing their parents or using the calculator.

“While boys are excited about entertainment opportunities a phone provides, girls in Malawi say they do not want Facebook or WhatsApp because they do not know how to block people. Girls that do not own phones say they will put them at risk while girls who are digitally literate say they will keep them safe outside their house,” Ms Dibb added.

The research calls for development and tech communities to make sure they design mobile products and services that will meet the requirements of vulnerable girls.

Andrew Dunnett, Vodafone Foundation Director, said: “Girls are being left behind. In many countries access to mobile is key to a girls’ health, learning and development. We need to face the reality that girls and boys do not have equal access to mobile, and design services that reach the girls and meet their needs in this context.”

Kecia Bertermann, technical director of digital research at Girl Effect, said: “Unequal access to technology is a growing area of research, but ‘girls’ are typically subsumed within the broader category of ‘women’, so their unique challenges often go unreported. This study reveals the reality for girls and their position at the back of the queue when it comes to accessing mobile.

“Firstly, we found that girls experience more of the risks but fewer, if any, of the benefits; without the time or permission to develop the confidence to explore more sophisticated uses of mobile, girls’ tech literacy is hampered. Secondly, given some girls are resorting to using phones in secret, they sometimes feel unable to report safety issues to parents or friends, and end up putting themselves at greater risk.”

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