1. International Women’s Day 2017: Telcos renew fight against call harassment, empower women to lead richer lives

International Women’s Day 2017: Telcos renew fight against call harassment, empower women to lead richer lives

The battle for women to be treated like human beings with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of cultural, political and economic goals continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle.

New Delhi | Updated: March 8, 2017 12:21 PM
Women continue to face barriers more acutely than men because their socio-economic and cultural status dictates the level of their engagement with technology in many of these countries. (Source: Pixabay)

The battle for women to be treated like human beings with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of cultural, political and economic goals continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle. This struggle for women’s rights to full participation extends to each and every every facet of life, including technology. Today as per GSMA, 1.7 Billion of over 3 Billion people unconnected to mobile revolution in low and middle income countries are women. Despite the rapid strides taken in the field of telecommunications women continue to lag behind in a world that is increasingly going mobile and increasingly becoming connected.

Women continue to face barriers more acutely than men because their socio-economic and cultural status dictates the level of their engagement with technology in many of these countries. Events that are commonplace in a developed country may be viewed in a jaundiced manner in a backward society. A good example of this is how society tends to ostracize a woman if she talks to a stranger on her mobile phone. Social ostracization of women is one of the reasons why women in backward countries have limited connectivity even today. This technology divide is increased by the limited access to finances that women have in societies that are socially and economically backward which makes them even more dependent upon the earning members of their family for even a basic recharge.

Women in general say they feel safer with a mobile phone. They feel empowered. They are able to make better use of their time and money. They make better decisions. Mobile is truly empowering and important for their wellbeing. Therefore, in today’s connected day and age, it should be a matter of concern for us that issues such as security and call harassment are still dominating discussions on women’s mobile connectivity and usage in many regions of the world. Out of the top five barriers to connecting more women to the mobile revolution women put security concerns just behind cost and network quality and coverage.

Even an ordinary recharge transaction at retailer is inherent with many security and privacy risks, especially for women. Women have to be very careful while providing their number to the retailer because a bystander can easily overhear the conversation and use the information to harass the woman by calling her on her mobile phone.

The problems of security and call harassment have reached chronic levels in the small towns and mofussil of India, with many unscrupulous retailers selling numbers to the highest bidder. The thriving racket came to light after a round-the-clock helpline set up by the UP government was flooded with complaints from women regarding unsolicited calls. Out of the 6, 61,129 complaint registered using the helpline, a majority, over 90% were related to harassment over calls.

A number of tech companies have come up with solutions to tackle this menace. However, most of these solutions, such as truecaller, or call blocker are reactive, as they are triggered after the event has already taken in place, which in this case is only after the number has already been compromised. Also, without the adequate checks and balances in the system, as well as the political willingness to go after the perpetrators, technology raises false hope in the victim which is even more damaging to the cause of women’s security. The police, in many of these matters, often choose to turn a blind eye to the perpetrators of these crimes because they have limited resources at their disposal. Also, why should we limit ourselves to app based solutions only? It is no secret that many women do not have access to smartphones. An app based solution would only discriminate between women. This calls for a need for a more comprehensive solution that are able to leverage various access channels like USSD, IVR, Apps etc.

Telcos’ are redrawing the battle-lines in this fight against call harassment by making retail recharge transactions safer for female customers. Private recharge allows telco customers to recharge their prepaid connection at retailer without sharing their number. Privacy and security are ensured as the phone number is replaced with an alias. In order to generate the alias the customer needs to send a SMS to short-code. Once the alias is generated, the customer can pass it to the retailer for recharge transaction.

In India private recharge services are provided by leading telecom operators like Vodafone and Idea Cellular. Idea Cellular launched its service in Kerala in August 2016. To get the alias, Idea Cellular customers need to send an SMS ‘CODE’ to shortcode 55515. Customers receive an alias via SMS, which they can share with the retailer for recharge, instead of their actual mobile number. Vodafone India launched its service in West Bengal in February, 2017. Vodafone customers need to send a toll free SMS ‘Private’ to 12604, to get the alias. Many international operators are also providing similar service. Grameenphone – Bangladesh’s leading telephone operator – has provided a toll free SMS port: 5252. Customers can register with the service by sending a SMS message to the number and initiating the service. Orange Egypt provides a similar type of service with the SMS port: 5050.

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Private recharge is one of a kind solution that has the potential to empower women all over the world by helping them to stay connected. It is an SMS based solution which works for smartphone users as well as feature phone users. It is proactive rather than reactive because the actual number is hidden behind an alias. It is easy to use and does not require any special type of training.
Women see value in mobile phone as a life enhancing tool. It helps them to stay connected, feel safer, save time and money and get better access to health and education. Unleashing this connectivity will not only help women to live richer lives but also unlock their potential to the fullest leading to a better and prosperous society.

By Srinivas Nidugondi; SVP and Head, Mobile Financial Solutions, Mahindra Comviva

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