Mobile phone use among women is associated with increased use of contraception, lower gender inequality, and lower maternal and child mortality, according to a new study which covered 209 countries.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, showed that giving women access to information they otherwise would not have, mobile phones are transforming lives.
Putting smart phones in women's hands could be a powerful tool to support sustainable development goals in the developing world, according to researchers.
Access to mobile phones is associated with multiple indicators linked to global social development, such as good health, gender equality, and poverty reduction, said the study.
The results showed that the link between mobile phone access and female empowerment is stronger in less- and least-developed countries.
"Our results suggest that deploying mobile-phone technology might serve to complement the role of other development processes such as educational expansion and economic growth rather than a replacement for it," said Luca Maria Pesando, Professor at McGill University in Canada.
For the study, the researchers assembled a wealth of publicly available macro- and individual-level data, exploring a wide range of demographic and social development outcomes, and leveraging a combination of methodological approaches.
In an effort to better understand how mobile phones empower women, the authors also conducted an individual level analysis on 100,000 women from Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe between 2015 and 2017.
Though these sub-Saharan countries show slow fertility decline and infant and maternal mortality rates remain high, the adoption of mobile phones is fast spreading.
Results indicate that, other things being equal, women who own a mobile phone have a one per cent higher probability of being involved in decision-making processes about contraception, two per cent higher likelihood of using modern contraceptive methods, and a three per cent higher likelihood of knowing where to get tested for HIV with respect to women who do not own a phone.
Similar effects are estimated on higher overall decision-making power within the household.
Still, despite the proliferation of mobile networks, the researchers acknowledged that digital divides by gender and socioeconomic strata persist in the developing world.
Women are less likely to own mobile phones on their own, use them less often when they have access, and have poorer information and communications technology skills compared to men, creating second-level (skill-related) digital divides on top of first-level (access-related) ones.