Mobilizing Women: A Study Of Women’s Empowerment and Cell Phone Use In Tanzania

Hi there!

My name is Tim Wright, and I’m a senior Public Health major/Econ minor at the College of William and Mary. This summer, I will be continuing my work from this past semester with Professor Phillip Roessler and several fellow undergraduates exploring the relationship between mobile phone ownership and gender empowerment through a randomized control trial distribution of cell phones to women in Tanzania.

The inspiration for this study came about through our interest in a newly formed NGO, Kidogo Kidogo, which is applying a “get one give one” model of aid distribution to cell phones. The company sells designer cell phone cases and donates a pay-as-you-go cell phone and small startup package to a woman in need in Tanzania with each sale. This model of aid has become increasingly popular in recent years, but critiques have surfaced of possible unintended negative side effects of such systems. Particularly, in the case of cell phone ownership, there is at the same time the great potential for such a powerful tool to greatly improve a woman’s standard of living but also the possibility for it to cause new conflicts with her family or be sold off/not used for its intended purpose. In light of these risks and an absence of literature on the topic, we have developed a randomized control trial to empirically examine the effects of Kidogo Kidogo’s strategy and in a larger sense to study the impacts of cell phone ownership on gender inequality.

Over the past semester, I have been working with a team of fellow undergraduates to develop a small-scale trial that will be carried out in-country. The randomly-assigned treatment will be a Kidogo Kidogo cell phone and starter package, and the control will be a small gift of food. We have developed a survey tool to help quantify levels of empowerment that we will use to establish a baseline measure of empowerment in both the treatment and control groups. The measures will focus primarily women’s empowerment in the domains of financial independence, physical security, social connectedness, and health care access. Followup survey results taken one month later will enable us to compare changes in levels of empowerment between the treatment and control group and also provide data to search for unintended negative consequences of cell phone distribution. The women involved in this first phase of the study belong to the micro-lending organization FINCA and live in the semi-rural region about an hour and a half from Dar es Salaam. Given these characteristics, these women are expected to be on the relatively high end of the baseline empowerment spectrum, and combined with the short followup time this initial study will serve as a pilot for a second, larger-scale implementation, which will take place with a cross-sectional sample of women from all across Tanzania and have greater potential generalizability of its results.

I will be heading over to Tanzania at the start of June to help coordinate the followup work from the first phase of the study, aggregate the data, and begin facilitating the implementation of the scaled-up study. Between our coordination with FINCA and Kidogo Kidogo to carry out the distribution and our use of the Tanzanian research institution REPOA to conduct the survey measures, it will be a sizable operation to keep all of the moving parts functioning, and hopefully my presence will be useful in carrying out the work we hope to accomplish. Stay tuned for updates on the project/my travels as the summer progresses.