Designing Technologies for Pakistan

Maryam Mustafa

29th March 2022

I moved back to Lahore 3 years ago after more than a decade of living abroad. The city had moved on, grown, evolved and I no longer recognized the streets, the trees or the neighbourhoods. Unfazed I relied on Google Maps to help me re-learn the city of my birth, thanking the gods of technological innovation that allowed me to freely navigate my way independently through the maze that I felt Lahore had become. Until the night I needed to come home from a work event at an unknown hotel in an unrecognisable part of the city. I remember turning to Google Maps without much thought and without much thought following the directions which led me to narrow, back streets with little traffic, few residential homes, no street lighting and utter blackness. Given the city and country, I now call home, I am grateful I made it home without incidence. Google Maps is not designed to provide you with the ‘safest’ way home – only the most efficient. The shortest. Not the most well-lit. Not the most crowded. There are no options to say ‘hey it’s late, I would rather take the most well-lit, crowded path home’. Google Maps is not designed for or I would imagine with women. And this it turns out is the case with most technologies. Typically, these are designed for/with the average user in mind who is usually a white male in the Global North (literate, financially stable, not from a vulnerable or marginalized population) – it is rarely a woman and almost never a woman in the Global South.

While digital technologies are increasingly being used in developing countries to enable economic growth, employment, and empowerment, there is growing agreement that the impact of these technologies in the Global South is not gender-neutral but instead amplifies the existing gender inequalities within these countries.

Pakistan is a country where the total literacy rate is approximately 59 per cent, with less than 47 per cent of women being literate and more than 71 per cent of men. It also ranks 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020 index published by the World Economic Forum. It is the worst-performing country in the Gender Gap Index in South Asia and according to the mobile gender gap report, women are 38 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 49 per cent less likely to use mobile internet (most low-income users do not have wifi). Pakistan is also a patriarchal context where women are restricted in their use of physical spaces- a country where just the simple act of ‘loitering’ becomes a form of resistance. A 2009 study carried out by the Human Rights Watch estimated that approx. 10 – 20 % of women have suffered some form of abuse. In reality, this number is much higher – abuse in Pakistan is typically not reported. One estimate claims approx. 5000 women are killed per year as a result of domestic violence. Another study by the United Nations found that 50% of married women have experienced sexual violence and 90% have been psychologically abused.

How do you begin to understand the design of technologies for/with women in this context? What would enabling technologies look like? And what would they enable?

Given the disparity in the literacy rate in Pakistan, access to technologies does not only refer to physical access to a device – it is a deeper problem requiring contextualised design of technologies for populations that have specific constraints – like language, literacy and limited access to wifi.

Additionally, most if not all current smartphone technologies and interventions work from a very Western-centric framework of privacy – so the assumption is one phone per person that they can use a phone lock on and that is physically only theirs to access. However, this is not the model of phone usage for much of the Global South and in particular for women in the Global South. Women in South Asian countries like Pakistan only have access to mobile phones and to the internet as shared resources - which means they have access to a male family members' phone for a short time during the day. How then do we design for the privacy of applications like WhatsApp? In my work I find low-literate women to be prolific users of Whatsapp because it allows communication using voice messages. However, it affords them no privacy as their husbands and their own contacts, chats and media are all on one application.

Similarly, there has been a great deal of interest in recent years in deploying digital financial services to promote financial inclusion amongst women in the Global South through the use of mobile money platforms and mobile-phone-based services. The rationale is that having access to mobile wallets on your phone bypasses traditional constraints of mobility and documentation required to open bank accounts for women. However, in our work on understanding the financial life cycles of micro-entrepreneur women in Pakistan and the potential for digital financial services we find women unwilling to use mobile wallets. One particular participant’s response highlights the gaps in technology design. Our participant was an older woman who ran a small home-based business asked us what we thought Digital Financial Technologies could possibly do for her? She was aware of digital financial services for managing money but had never had enough disposable income to ‘save’ in the sense of ‘putting it in an account and forgetting about it. Putting it into a digital account did not enable her to pay her vendors, contribute to her rotating and savings credit association (her primary method for saving), help her save for her daughter’s dowry or pay her child’s school fees. And so her question was what did we think digital mobile accounts/financial services could possibly do for her? Another concern with existing digital financial technologies has been that of privacy. The women we worked with using informal hidden mechanisms for saving money and simply digitizing this without much thought to this context means making their savings transparent to male family members.

And so, while these digital technologies are pushed as the one-stop solution to women’s economic empowerment and financial inclusion, the women who are the intended beneficiaries of these technologies are disdainful of the simplicity, limitations and naivete of such applications.

In contrast, almost all women we have worked with are prolific Youtube users – mostly because it allows them to use voice search to find the things they want to see. One older woman whom we initially met relied on her daughter to search for the dramas she liked to watch. We met with her again 3 months after our initial conversation to find her daughter had taught her to use the voice search function Youtube provides to become self-sufficient in its use. We find women are more than happy to learn the use of technologies, to carve out time to engage with applications when there is purposeful value added to these applications. When thought and care is extended in designing with (not for) women.

About the contributor: Maryam Mustafa is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. She works at the intersection of technology and gender and draws on qualitative and participatory methods to study and create technologies for underserved populations in the Global South.