Mobile Phones, Social Relations, and the Gatekeepers to Women's Empowerment in Maasai Households

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Virginia Tech

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.

Maasai, Gender, empowerment, social relations, mobile phones