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Bridging the mobile gender gap for refugees: A case study of women’s use of mobile phones in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement and Kiziba Refugee Camp

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The importance of mobile technology for women in refugee contexts

1.7 billion women now own a mobile phone in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), and over a billion use mobile internet. As the reach of mobile has grown, it has become an increasingly powerful tool with which to deliver life-enhancing information, services and opportunities to millions who have not been able to access them before.

Alongside barriers such as affordability and lack of digital skills, cultural and social barriers may prevent women from accessing mobile phones. A significant gender gap in mobile phone ownership and usage in LMICs means women are being left behind in an increasingly digitised world.

The GSMA estimates that women in LMICs are 10 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. This increases to 15 per cent in SubSaharan Africa. Within regions and countries however there are significant variations. For instance, Mozambique has a gender gap in mobile ownership of 24 per cent and in Tanzania the gender gap in mobile ownership is 2 per cent in urban areas but 16 per cent in rural areas.

In refugee camps and settlements, mobile phones can play a number of roles in supporting women’s livelihood and wellbeing. Women use them to run businesses and generate a livelihood, they are also a conduit for important information regarding the camp, and political developments back home.

Exploring the mobile gender gap and the associated barriers women and girls may face in refugee contexts is important. It feeds into what is already commonly perceived, that often women and girls can miss valuable aid and support in a crisis4 .Exclusion does not discriminate and exists in every refugee context. With UNHCR estimating that 75 per cent of refugees and displaced people are women and children5 , it is important to understand potential gender imbalances when responding to crises.

Previous GSMA research conducted in Nyarugusu refugee camp (Tanzania) found that gendered barriers to mobile access were stark: 62 per cent of men reported owning a mobile phone, compared to only 36 per cent of women (a gender gap of 42 per cent)7 .However the mobile gender gap in refugee contexts has received little dedicated attention, partly due to the dearth of genderdisaggregated data available.

This case study highlights the experiences of refugee women (compared to men) with mobile technology in Bidi Bidi settlement in Uganda and Kiziba camp in Rwanda to demonstrate the value of closing the mobile gender gap. Focusing on the stories of women provides evidence on their opportunities and barriers in accessing and using mobile-enabled services. Humanitarian organisations can use this evidence to help them facilitate meaningful mobile phone usage for women in humanitarian settings. Furthermore, mobile network operators (MNOs) can use the evidence presented here to help them design tailored products and services for refugee women, alongside humanitarian organisations.