Safe, comfy and chatting away - women's empowerment at PCO booths

Monday, 29 June 2009, 09:00 Hrs
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New Delhi: Anjali Kher, 33, a small-time designer from Srinagar, keeps in touch with her family in the Kashmir Valley from the public telephone booth next to her home in Delhi.

"The booth remains open till midnight and I drop in almost every day after work to call my father and my brothers," Kher, who lives in Mayur Vihar, told IANS.

The public telephone - including the PCO (public call office) phone booths with STD facilities - in India has become a tool of empowerment for women in middle class India, particularly migrants.

A new study says public telephones are the most frequently used method of making calls by Indian women at the bottom of the social pyramid compared to other South Asian nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Thailand.

Indian men at the bottom of the pyramid, on the other hand, rely more on their mobiles, the study said.

The survey, "The Gendered Use of Telecom at The Bottom Of the Pyramid", by Colombo-headquartered LIRNEasia, a regional information and communication technology policy and regulation capacity building organisation active across the Asia-Pacific, found that Indian respondents showed a preference for public phones.

Women can walk into a phone booth at any time to connect to friends and families without the fear of being harassed, spied upon or discriminated against in terms of gender.

Home phones, said the study, exposed the women to being censured.

"The respondents said children and others would overhear what was said. Public telephone was never a hassle and PCO owners would sometimes allow them credit if they ran out of money," Rohan Samarajiva, CEO of LIRNasia told IANS over telephone from Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Statistics from the study cite that in India nearly 33 percent women use public access phones compared to four percent in Pakistan, 29 percent in Bangladesh, six percent in Sri Lanka, two percent in the Philippines and three percent in Thailand.

Only 23 percent Indian women owned mobile phones compared to 42 percent Indian men. In Bangladesh, 32 percent women owned mobile phones.

"The reasons are historical. Call it the legacy of Sam Pitroda's public telephony blitz of the 1980s. Indian women are safer in telephone booths. She can finish cooking and go to the telephone booth to make a call. If a woman tries to do that in Bangladesh, she will be bothered by people on the streets," Samarajiva said.

The findings of the survey, carried out over three years from 2005 to 2008 in six Asian countries for a global telecom major, were made public in May 2009. The researchers interviewed 9,950 migrant telephone users.

According to the study, women use these telephones to make calls when they do not have access to mobile or fixed phones, their cellphone credit is low and when they want to "hold private conversations with their parents and siblings away from the immediate family".

Indian women, said the study, used public phones on a regular basis - from once a week to once a month."

The respondents interviewed by the researchers in western and south Indian states said in most cases, the PCO from where they made calls were near their homes and "they felt perfectly comfortable using public phones despite the fact that mobile phones have become affordable in the past two-three years."

In some cases, the study said, booth owners helped "illiterate women" dial the numbers and also kept messages.

"All the migrant women whom we spoke to in India said they believed using public phones were better than using other people's phones since it was a cash transaction. Fifty five percent of this group does not have a phone of their own," Samarajiva said.

Mobile phones, said Samarajiva, was still a male-dominated technology in South Asia.

Santosh Kaur, a 55-year-old housewife from Ambala in Punjab, has been going to a PCO for the past 15 years to talk to her paternal family in Uttar Pradesh. She says her sons do not allow her to use their cell-phones. She does not own one and she does not like calling from the fixed phone at home for fear of being overheard by her daughters in-law.

Kaur told IANS at a telephone booth in Kalkaji during a recent visit to the capital, "I can say anything and speak to my siblings for as long as I like from the telephone booth near home."
Source: IANS
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