Do Mobile Phones Reduce or Reinforce Existing Gender Divides in PNG?

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A gender digital divide is typical of many developing countries where women and girls have less access to ICT than men and boys. These divisions in the ownership of and access to ICTs further marginalise the rural poor and women from the benefits of social and economic change resulting from the expansion of ICT availability.
Bridging the Digital Divide: Everyday Use of Mobile Phones Among Market Sellers in Papua New Guinea examines the extent to which a digital divide exists in PNG: Is mobile phone technology bridging existing gender and spatial inequalities or simply reinforcing them?
If a gendered digital divide were present in Papua New Guinea, one would anticipate that men would adopt the new technology earlier than women, and they would make more use of the technology because they have more political and economic power (higher incomes) than women.
Is There a Gender Digital Divide in PNG?
The data for this research is drawn from several research projects in which the authors, George Curry, Elizabeth Dumu, and Gina Koczberski, are engaged:

  • Fruit and vegetable sellers at informal markets in Mt Hagan, the capital of Western Highlands Province (WHP) and Kokopo, the capital of the island province of East New Britain (ENBP)
  • Cocoa growing households in ENBP, Milne Bay (MBP) and the Autonomous Region Bougainville (ARB)
  • Oil palm smallholders in West New Britain (WNBP) and Oro provinces (OP)

A gender digital divide where women have less access to mobile phones than their male counterparts is also found in PNG. Watson found that men in Megiar, north of Madang in PNG, were more likely than women to own a mobile phone. This gender difference in mobile phone ownership was not detected at Watson’s second field site of Orora on Karkar Island.
In terms of early adoption of the technology, the 2014 data collected among market sellers in ENBP and WHP were not clear cut. At both sites the average year of adoption was 2008 for both men and women.
However, in ENBP, women tended to adopt mobile phones slightly earlier than men and in WHP the reverse was the case with men adopting mobile phones earlier than women.
Matrilineal vs Patrilineal Culture Impacts
This gendered difference in the uptake of mobile phones between the two provinces reflects, in part, the relative status of women in the two provinces: the Gazelle Peninsula of ENBP is matrilineal and women certainly have more status than women in the strongly patrilineal highland societies of WHP.
Further evidence of this gendered difference in mobile phone telephony between matrilineal ENBP and patrilineal WHP is reflected in rates of mobile phone ownership.
While men in both provinces have higher rates of phone ownership than women, the gender disparity is more marked in WHP where a strong ideology of male dominance leaves women with less social, political and economic autonomy and power than men.
There is a 25.7 percent point difference in phone ownership between men and women in WHP compared with a 10.8 percent point difference in ENBP. Clearly, the relative social and economic status of women in the two provinces is reflected in phone ownership rates.
These gender differences by provinces are also apparent in how the mobile phone is used and how frequently men and women make and receive calls and SMS messages.
In matrilineal ENBP, women make and receive more calls than men, whereas in patrilineal WHP the reverse is the case and again the disparity between the genders is starker than in ENBP. Similarly, in ENBP, women send more SMS messages than men and receive about the same number as men, while men from WHP send and receive more texts than women.
The Potential of Mobile Phone Technology
In summary, it seems that mobile phone technology is not yet contributing to a significant erosion of the gender divide in WHP society. However, it is likely that mobile phone technology is empowering women by widening their social networks beyond their immediate communities by allowing them to maintain contact with relatives and friends living elsewhere.
This is especially important for women in patrilineal societies when they move to the villages of their husbands and have limited contact with their natal relatives living elsewhere.
It is also likely that the technology empowers women market sellers economically through, for example, enabling them to contact relatives in town to determine prices at local markets before committing to transporting garden produce to market. These benefits, of course, pertain more to women in accessible locations not far from urban markets who can respond quickly to such opportunities.
Overall, however, when ENBP and WHP are compared it appears that the uptake and use of mobile phone technology reflects existing patterns of gender inequality.
Women in matrilineal ENBP have much higher status in their society and this is reflected in their higher rate of mobile phone adoption and use relative to men, whereas in patrilineal WHP with an entrenched high level of gender inequity, men are clearly benefiting far more from the new technology than women.
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