In South Asia, cellphones are incredibly cheap and easy to access – sim cards cost less than a few dollars and text plans mean that people can send thousands of texts for very little cost.

With this in mind, the role of cellphones in boosting education levels and increasing female participation in rural areas of South Asia through creative schemes seem promising.

The BUNYAD Foundation of Lahore (a Pakistan NGO focusing on improving the lives of rural families), cellphone company Mobilink and UNESCO have developed a programme to determine whether incorporating cheap mobile phones into a teaching curriculum can increase the grades of girls in villages in Pakistan.

The project was run over 5 months, involving 10 teachers and 250 adolescent female school students. They were each given a school textbook, a mobile phone and received interesting and informative texts everyday, which they had to respond to (such as homework exercises from their teacher).

The programme was inexpensive,  provided accountability and overcame barriers to girls accessing schools. In rural Pakistan, it is often unsafe for girls to travel long distances to school, so this programme allowed girls to exchange text messages with their teacher from the safety of their homes. Compared with the low-cost laptop programmes that are sometimes used in rural areas, cell phones are much cheaper, require little or no training for rural teachers and use a tiny fraction of the power (particularly useful as power cuts are common).

Most promising of all, the girls’ grades improved substantially on the programme. Before the project started, 57 percent of the girls were graded C and only 28 percent of the girls were awarded an A. After cellphones had been incorporated into the teaching curriculum, the situation had reversed – more than 60 percent of girls awarded an A and girls getting C grades dropped to 11 percent.

Furthermore, studies have shown that students’ families also benefitted from the programme – as students taught their families about what they were learning. In addition, girls involved in the project are able to continue to help their mothers with domestic work at home (which is sometimes a contributing factor as to why parents do not want their girls to attend school).

UNESCO and their partners have now expanded the programme to include another 1,250 girls in rural areas of four districts of Punjab.

How are mobile phones affecting the lives of women in rural parts of India?

Around 700 million people in India have access to a cellphone (according to the most conservative estimates). In contrast, at the of 2011, India had about 97 million regular Internet users.

However it is important to note that there is a high gender gap when accessing cellphones.  According to research conducted by the GSMA Development Fund and the Cherie Blair Foundation, only 28 percent of Indian women own a mobile phone, compared to 40 percent of men. Women in rural villages often lack the proof of identity needed in India to buy a sim card – often bills,  licenses or other documents are held in a man’s name. A recent study found that in very low-income families in India, there was typically one mobile phone in the possession of the male head of household, with the women having little or no access.

There is no doubt that in some parts of rural India, there are innovative and successful programmes involving cellphones that are educating and empowering women. An example of this in the state of Gujarat, where the mobile phone is central to a scheme that allows rural health care workers to compile information about pregnant women and send them text messages to remind the women about checkups and vaccinations.

Access to a mobile phone can improve rural women’s lives in many ways, giving women more economic independence and access to outside support, and it also means that women have more privacy if needing to discuss a subject that is considered taboo. This is why programmes, such as those implemented in Pakistan and Gujarat (aimed at women), are so important.

However, the use of mobile phones by women has also been a source of controversy in India. In 2010, a village council in Uttar Pradesh banned young, unmarried women from owning or using mobile phones to avoid marriages that were not arranged.  The ban, however, applied only to women, not to young men.

Despite this, results from programmes incorporating cellphones have been positive and results have suggested that with some creativity, they can greatly assist in educating and empowering women and girls.

(Sources: UNESCO)

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