Cellphones ring in change for Bangladeshi women
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Cellphones ring in change for Bangladeshi women

There are no landlines in Shahabazpur but communications in the dusty village have suddenly leapfrogged from mail ponies to mobile phones.

business Updated: Oct 13, 2003 11:43 IST

So-called phone ladies are ringing in the changes in male-dominated Bangladeshi villages.

There are no landlines in Shahabazpur, 150 km east of Dhaka, but communications in the dusty village, as in many other rural outposts, have suddenly leapfrogged from mail ponies to mobile phones.

"Now the villagers can get good or bad news in a few minutes. This is a miracle by Bangladeshi standards," telephone operator Ashik Miah said.

Bangladesh, with a population of more than 130 million, 80 per cent of them living in villages, has one of the lowest telephone penetration rates in the world, with only three land lines to per 1,000 people.

It has just 1.25 million mobile phones run by four private operators.

The leading cellphone operator, GrameenPhone Ltd, is investing $60 million on expansion and is aiming to have a million customers by the end of this year.

Under a special low-priced package, it has been offering phones to village women, now popularly known as phone ladies, and changing lifestyles into the bargain.

The phones are registered only in the name of women but they are also operated by their husbands and sons and shared out in the village at a few taka per call.

With just one phone, the service has now become a family business in many villages, with monthly earnings averaging 10,000 taka ($170), a lot of money in poverty-ridden Bangladesh which has an annual per capita income of $368.

"This has improved our living standards and made us feel proud in every sense," said operator Masuda Begum.

The phone ladies also enjoyed a bigger say in family decisions, including marriage of children, Masuda said.


Many have renovated their homes with their new income and in villages with electricity they have bought colour televisions and refrigerators. Some are even sending their children to the cities for school where they also have access to qualified doctors.

GrameenPhone plans also include allowing phone ladies Internet access via mobile phone, said sales and marketing director Mehboob Chowdhury.

"We are also planning a service for a commodity price and weather forecast," he said.

Similarly, manpower agents, who send villagers abroad on jobs, now conduct business from home.

"Earlier we had to go to Dhaka and spend several days there to contact our people abroad. It was expensive," said Mubarak Ali, who has sent about 100 unskilled workers to the Middle East and Southeast Asia over past three years.

Similarly, money transfers used to be done by money launderers, a system called "hundi".

The hundi operators often cheated the mostly illiterate recipients or at least delayed the transfers or took a hefty commission.

"Now it's a just a telephone call and the money is in the bank in two to three days," said Saleha, 30.

The cellphone has more heart-felt benefits as well.

"I spoke to my daddy a few days ago," said seven-year-old Maliha who has never seen her father, a worker in Italy.

"I see his photograph and often talk to him. He sends me gifts every year."

First Published: Oct 13, 2003 11:43 IST