An Experimental Analysis of the Impact of Smartphones and Household Property Rights on the Uptake of Digital Financial Services


Due to societal norms, women in Malawi are less likely to own assets or control resources for their family’s finances. As a result, women’s household bargaining power and decision-making are generally low compared to their husbands. In addition, while WEE-DiFine highlights that digital financial services (DFS) may positively bolster women’s economic empowerment (WEE), access to smartphones and other technology is essential for this causal connection to take place.


This project aims to understand how women’s ownership of smartphones in villages can increase women’s economic empowerment, their use of digital financial services, and their household’s economic well-being in Malawi. To explore this, married women living in the poorest regions of the Blantyre district of Malawi will be recruited through village development committees (VDCs). Fifteen hundred women will be randomly assigned to one of two treatment conditions, a cash placebo, or the control group. Individuals assigned to the technical efficacy treatment group will receive a smartphone, mobile money account, and training for married women who did not previously own a phone. The property rights treatment group includes the technical efficacy treatment but also layers on a couples’ training to improve husbands’ knowledge of women’s phone ownership rights. A third cash placebo group will receive an unconditional cash transfer equivalent to the value of the smartphone. Outcome measures of interest include women’s phone ownership at midline (i.e., are women able to retain phone ownership), shifts in husbands’ beliefs about women’s phone use and property rights, and couples’ trust and cooperation.

Proposed impact

Through previous research in Tanzania, the research team observed that women’s technical efficacy is limited by their property rights. The interventions being tested were designed to shift beliefs about how women use smartphones as well as beliefs that women’s phone ownership and use have social costs for women. This research has the potential to better understand how the role of shifting husbands’ beliefs could lead to stronger property rights for women, thus increasing phone uptake and DFS use.


Photo credit: Melissa Cooperman/IFPRI via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License


Associated Institute: Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR) 

Associated Investigators: Philip Roessler, William & Mary; Tanu Kumar, William & Mary; Peter Carroll, University of Michigan; Boniface Dulani, Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR); Daniel Nielson, University of Texas-Austin

Country: Malawi

Implementation Partners: Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR); Girls Empowerment Network (GENET)

WEE-DiFine thematic areas: behavioral influence; household bargaining power