Mobile Phones, Social Relations, and the Gatekeepers to Women's Empowerment in Maasai Households
Summers, Kelly Hope
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Throughout the developing world, the mobile phone has been heralded as a tool that can empower and lift women out of vulnerable situations. While many scholars and development professionals believe that phones empower women, some contend that phones amplify disparities for people who are not well-positioned in society. To better understand how the diffusion of phones has impacted women, this thesis examines the relationship between mobile phones and socially constructed gender-based inequalities in agro-pastoralist Maasai communities in northern Tanzania. Grounded in perspectives from scholarship on women's empowerment and rural liveihoods, I ask: (1) how do women access and use phones?; and (2) how are women's phone uses embedded in existing social relations? This research relies on semi-structured interviews and household surveys conducted in the summer of 2018 to identify Maasai women's perspectives on phones, social relations, and power. Through inductive and deductive qualitative content analysis, findings indicate that phone access is fluid. There are a multitude of relationships between phones and empowerment, and these relationships are not only a function of a woman's personal choice and characteristics, but often more importantly her position in the household, the household norms her husband controls, and her husband's attributes. These results help show how women's empowerment in patriarchal societies, which may be afforded by new technologies, is guarded by men and subject to their discretions. This study highlights the importance of engaging men and women in discussions of and interventions surrounding women's empowerment.
General Audience Abstract
Mobile phones are used throughout the world, even in rural, developing areas. Both men and women are adopting cell phones that can provide access to greater amounts and different types of information that was previously inaccessible. Some development professionals and scholars argue that mobile phones are a tool that can empower marginalized communities, like women. Others contend that mobile phones fail to transform the lives of women due to existing gender inequalities. My research seeks to answer the question: do mobile phones empower women by increasing access to resources and enhancing decision-making power? This research is situated in northern Tanzania in predominately ethnically Maasai communities where patriarchal (system controlled by men) and polygynous (marriage of one man with several women) practices essentially give men the power to determine the responsibilities, roles, and rights of all community members. These practices are embedded in important traditions that help Maasai communities cope with stress and maintain or enhance life now and for future generations. The widespread adoption of mobile phones creates an opportunity for novelty in these traditional norms. To understand how Maasai women may use mobile phones to challenge traditional practices that permit gender inequalities, this study conducted interviews and surveys with women in ten rural communities to examine: if and how women access and use mobile phones; the opportunities and challenges that mobile phones present; how women leverage phones to access resources and practice agency (having options and the ability to define and act on goals); and how social position in the household interacts with processes of empowerment that phones may permit. Findings show that there is no single relationship between mobile phones and empowerment, but rather a multitude of relationships that are influenced by social position both in and out of the household. This study illustrates the importance of considering local socio-cultural norms and engaging men in development interventions for women’s empowerment.
- Masters Theses