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Archive for the ‘girls’ Category

At the November 8th Technology Salon in New York City, we looked at the role of ICTs in communication for development (C4D) initiatives with marginalized adolescent girls. Lead discussants Kerida McDonald and Katarzyna Pawelczyk discussed recent UNICEF reports related to the topic, and John Zoltner spoke about FHI360’s C4D work in practice.

To begin, it was pointed out that C4D is not donor communications or marketing. It is the use of communication approaches and methodologies to achieve influence at various levels —  e.g., family, institutional and policy —  to change behavior and social norms. C4D is one approach that is being used to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion.

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 7.24.48 AMAs the UNICEF report on ICTs and C4D* notes, girls may face a number of situations that contribute to and/or are caused by their marginalization: early pregnancy, female genital cutting, early marriage, high rates of HIV/AIDS, low levels of education, lack of control over resources. ICTs alone cannot resolve these, because there is a deep and broad set of root causes. However, ICTs can be integrated systematically into the set of C4D tools and approaches that contribute to positive change.

Issues like bandwidth, censorship and electricity need to be considered when integrating ICTs into C4D work, and approaches that fit the context need to be developed. Practitioners should use tools that are in the hands of girls and their communities now, yet be aware of advances in access and new technologies, as these change rapidly.

Key points:

Interactivity is more empowering than one-way messaging:  Many of the ICT solutions being promoted today focus on sending messages out via mobile phones. However C4D approaches aim for interactivity and multi-channel, multi-directional communication, which has proven more empowering.

Content: Traditional media normally goes through a rigorous editorial process and it is possible to infuse it with a gender balance. Social media does not have the same type of filters, and it can easily be used to reinforce stereotypes about girls. This is something to watch and be aware of.

Purpose: It’s common with ICT-related approaches to start with the technology rather than starting with the goals. As one Salon participant asked “What are the results we want to see for ourselves? What are the results that girls want to see? What are the root causes of discrimination and how are we trying to address them? What does success look like for girls? For organizations? Is there a role for ICTs in helping achieve success? If so, what is it?” These questions need to be the starting point, rather than the technology.

Participation: One Salon participant mentioned a 2-year project that is working together with girls to define their needs and their vision of success. The process is one co-design, and it is aimed at understanding what girls want. Many girls expressed a feeling of isolation and desire for connection, and so the project is looking at how ICTs can help them connect. As the process developed, the diversity of needs became very clear and plans have changed dramatically based on input from a range of girls from different contexts. Implementors need to be prepared to change, adapt and respond to what girls say they want and to local realities.

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Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 10.41.22 PMA second study commissioned by UNICEF explores how young people use social media. The researchers encountered some challenges in terms of a strong gender approach for the study. Though a gender lens was used for analysis, there is little available data disaggregated by sex. The study does not focus on the most marginalized, because it looks at the use of social media, which normally requires a data connection or Internet access, which the most marginalized youth usually do not have.

The authors of the report found that youth most commonly used the Internet and social media for socializing and communicating with friends. Youth connected less often for schoolwork. One reason for this may be that in the countries/contexts where the research took place, there is no real integration of ICTs into the school system. It was emphasized that the  findings in the report are not comparable or nationally representative, and blanket statements such as “this means x for the whole developing world” should be avoided.

Key points:

Self-reporting biases. Boys tend to have higher levels of confidence and self-report greater ICT proficiency than girls do. This may skew results and make it seem that boys have higher skill levels.

Do girls really have less access? We often hear that girls have less access than boys. The evidence gathered for this particular report found that “yes and no.” In some places, when researchers asked “Do you have access to a mobile,” there was not a huge difference between urban and rural or between boys and girls. When they dug deeper, however, it became more complex. In the case of Zambia, access and ownership were similar for boys and girls, but fewer girls were connecting at all to the Internet as compared to boys. Understanding connectivity and use was quite complicated.

What are girls vs. boys doing online? This is an important factor when thinking about what solutions are applicable to which situation(s). Differences came up here in the study. In Argentina, girls were doing certain activities more frequently, such as chatting and looking for information, but they were not gaming. In Zambia, girls were doing some things less often than boys; for example, fewer girls than boys were looking for health information, although the number was still significant. A notable finding was that both girls and boys were accessing general health information more often than they were accessing sensitive information, such as sexual health or mental health.

What are the risks in the online world? A qualitative portion of the study in Kenya used focus groups with girls and boys, and asked about their uses of social media and experience of risk. Many out-of-school girls aged 15-17 reported that they used social media as a way to meet a potential partner to help them out of their financial situation. They reported riskier behavior, contact with older men, and relationships more often than girls who were in school. Girls in general were more likely to report unpleasant online encounters than boys, for example, request for self-exposure photos.

Hiding social media use. Most of the young people that researchers spoke with in Kenya were hiding social media use from their parents, who disapproved of it. This is an important point to note in C4D efforts that plan on using social media, and program designers will want to take parental attitudes about different media and communication channels into consideration as they design C4D programs.

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When implementing programs, it is noteworthy how boys and girls tend to use ICT and media tools. Gender issues often manifest themselves right away. “The boys grab the cameras, the boys sit down first at the computers.” If practitioners don’t create special rules and a safe space for girls to participate, girls may be marginalized. In practical ICT and media work, it’s common for boys and girls to take on certain roles. “Some girls like to go on camera, but more often they tend to facilitate what is being done rather than star in it.” The gender gap in ICT access and use, where it exists, is a reflection of the power gaps of society in general.

In the most rural areas, even when people have access, they usually don’t have the resources and skills to use ICTs.  Very simple challenges can affect girls’ ability to participate in projects, for example, oftentimes a project will hold training at times when it’s difficult for girls to attend. Unless someone systematically goes through and applies a gender lens to a program, organizations often don’t notice the challenges girls may face in participating. It’s not enough to do gender training or measure gender once a year; gendered approaches needs to be built into program design.

Long-terms interventions are needed if the goal is to emancipate girls, help them learn better, graduate, postpone pregnancy, and get a job. This cannot be done in a year with a simple project that has only one focus, because girls are dealing with education, healthcare, and a whole series of very entrenched social issues. What’s needed is to follow a cohort of girls and to provide information and support across all these sectors over the long-term.

Key points:

Engaging boys and men: Negative reactions from men are a concern if and when girls and women start to feel more empowered or to access resources. For example, some mobile money and cash transfer programs direct funds to girls and women, and some studies have found that violence against women increases when women start to have more money and more freedom. Another study, however, of a small-scale effort that provides unconditional cash transfers to girls ages 18-19 in rural Kenya, is demonstrating just the opposite: girls have been able to say where money is spent and the gender dynamics have improved. This raises the question of whether program methodologies need to be oriented towards engaging boys and men and involving them in changing gender dynamics, and whether engaging boys and men can help avoid an increase in violence. Working with boys to become “girl champions” was cited as a way to help to bring boys into the process as advocates and role models.

Girls as producers, not just consumers. ICTs are not only tools for sending content to girls. Some programs are working to help girls produce content and create digital stories in their own languages. Sometimes these stories are used to advocate to decision makers for change in favor of girls and their agendas. Digital stories are being used as part of research processes and to support monitoring, evaluation and accountability work through ‘real-time’ data.

ICTs and social accountability. Digital tools are helping young people address accountability issues and inform local and national development processes. In some cases, youth are able to use simple, narrow bandwidth tools to keep up to date on actions of government officials or to respond to surveys to voice their priorities. Online tools can also lead to offline, face-to-face engagement. One issue, however, is that in some countries, youth are able to establish communication with national government ministers (because there is national-level capacity and infrastructure) but at local level there is very little chance or capability for engagement with elected officials, who are unprepared to respond and engage with youth or via social media. Youth therefore tend to bypass local government and communicate with national government. There is a need for capacity building at local level and decentralized policies and practices so that response capacity is strengthened.

Do ICTs marginalize girls? Some Salon participants worried that as conversations and information increasingly move to a digital environment, ICTs are magnifying the information and communication divide and further marginalizing some girls. Others felt that the fact that we are able to reach the majority of the world’s population now is very significant, and the inability to reach absolutely everyone doesn’t mean we should stop using ICTs. For this very reason – because sharing of information is increasingly digital – we should continue working to get more girls online and strengthen their confidence and abilities to use ICTs.

Many thanks to UNICEF for hosting the Salon!

(Salons operate under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been given in the above summary. Sign up here if you’d like to attend Salons in the future!)

*Disclosure: I co-authored this report with Keshet Bachan.

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Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 7.24.48 AMA paper that Keshet Bachan and I authored for Unicef is now available for your reading pleasure!

Here’s a  summary of what we talk about in the paper:

Social, cultural, economic and political traditions and systems that prevent girls, especially the most marginalized, from fully achieving their rights present a formidable challenge to development organizations. The integration of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to the Communication for Development (C4D) toolbox offers an additional means for challenging unequal power relations and increasing participation of marginalized girls in social
transformation.

We examine ways that ICTs can strengthen C4D programming by:

  • enhancing girls’ connections, engagement and agency;
  • helping girls access knowledge; and
  • supporting improved governance and service delivery efforts.

We reflect and build on the views of adolescent girls from 13 developing countries who participated in a unique discussion for this paper, and we then provide recommendations to support the integration of ICTs in C4D work with marginalized adolescent girls, including:

  • Girls as active participants in program design. Practitioners should understand local context and ensure that programs use communication channels that are accessible to girls. This will often require multi-channel and multiple platform approaches that reach more marginalized girls who may not have access to or use of ICTs. Programs should be community driven, and real-time feedback from girls should be incorporated to adjust programs to their needs and preferences. Mentoring is a key component of programming with girls, and holistic programs designed together with girls tend towards being more successful.
  • Privacy and protection. Every program should conduct a thorough risk analysis of proposed approaches to ensure that girls are not placed at risk by participating, sharing and consuming information, or publicly holding others to account. Girls should also be supported to make their own informed choices about their online presence and use of ICT devices and platforms. A broader set of stakeholders should be engaged and influenced to help mitigate systemic and structural risks to girls.
  • Research and documentation. The evidence base for use of ICTs in C4D programming with marginalized adolescent girls is quite scarce. Better documentation would improve understanding of what programs are the most effective, and what the real added value of ICTs are in these efforts.
  • Capacity building. Because the integration of ICTs into C4D work is a relatively new area that lacks a consistent methodological framework, organizations should support a comprehensive training process for staff to cover areas such as program design, effective use of new ICT tools in combination with existing tools and methods, and close attention to privacy and risk mitigation.
  • Policy. Programs should use free and open source software. In addition, child protection policies, measures and guidelines should be updated to reflect changes in technology, platforms and information sharing.

The paper was first shared at the 12th Inter-Agency Roundtable on Communication for Development in November 2011. It was then reviewed and updated in August 2012, and released in August 2013 under the title “Integrating Information and Communication Technologies into Communication for Development Strategies to Support and Empower Marginalized Adolescent Girls.”

Download it here!

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The March NYC Technology Salon offered an opportunity to discuss how mobile technology can transform workforce development and to hear how mobile is improving the reach and impact of existing initiatives working with girls and young women. Attendees also raised some of the acute, practical challenges and the deeper underlying issues that need to be overcome in order for girls and women to access and use mobile devices and to participate in workforce development programs and the labor market.

Conversation kicked off with comments from Kris Wiig (Samasource), Nancy Taggart (Education Development Center)  and Trina Das Gupta (former head of mWomen). The Salon was part of the Mobiles for Education Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development (mYWD) Working Group Learning Series, an initiative created in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation and USAID. The Salon was hosted at the offices of the Clinton Global Initiative.

The benefits of mobile vs stationary ICT for youth workforce development programs

Mobile holds a number of benefits over stationary ICT, including the feature of reaching people where they are because of the ubiquity of hand-held devices. Mobile is being used as both a primary tool in workforce development programming and as a complementary tool to enhance or reinforce content and interaction happening via other means such as web, face-to-face, and radio.

Reaching girls and women. Mobile can reach girls and young women with services and information they cannot normally get, helping them access the opportunities, skills, and information they need to better position them for work. Mobile job matching allows girls and young women to seek jobs without leaving the home. Micro-tasking (breaking up jobs into tiny tasks that can be done by a number of individuals, eg.,  via a mobile phone) offers a way for girls and young women from slum areas, those not able to work outside of the home, and those pulled out of difficult situations like sexual exploitation; to access entry-level work and gain experience that can help them quickly move to better jobs. Some 75% of women doing microtasking with Samasource move on to better jobs within 6 months, for example.

Getting geographically relevant information out to youth. Mobile can help spread information about opportunities to formerly unreached locations. In many places, jobs and scholarships exist, but they are promoted in places where youth do not see them. Mobile social networks can reach youth and connect them, based on their profiles and skill sets, to opportunities in their own geographical area, helping change the idea that youth have to move to the city in order to find work.

Strengthening soft and hard skills. Using mobile applications, gaming and quizzes, youth can work through career pathfinders in a fun way, find out what they like and what they are good at, and begin learning how to plan a career and what types of courses or preparation they need to achieve goals. They can also learn about savings and create savings plans for items they want to purchase, meanwhile making commitments to give up habits like smoking in order to put their limited resources towards other goals. Applications that reinforce basic literacy and numeracy, such as EDC’s Stepping Stone, help girls and young women strengthen the skills they need to move to a higher level of training or to access additional mobile-based information or engage in communications that help improve their livelihoods.

Lowering barriers to entry. Mobile offers a lower barrier to entry than more traditional ICTs. Mobile web has made it easier for many people to get online, especially in rural areas where people often have to be transported to centralized places in order to access desktop computers and broadband. Mobiles also require less electricity than desktop computers, a big plus in rural areas. One participant noted that an iPad costs only $400 vs a desktop that costs much more and requires more expertise and resources to set up and maintain. Tools available today make it easier for non-experts to create mobile applications. The challenge is getting over inertia and allowing kids to play and experiment.

Designing mobile workforce development programs with and for girls and young women

Even with all these benefits, however, mobile may not always be the best tool because access to information and content delivery does not resolve deeper gender-related issues. Salon attendees offered some insights on ways to make mYWD programs more inclusive of and adapted to the needs of girls and women.

Addressing underlying gender issues. Girls and young women may find a scholarship or a job via mobile but for various reasons, such as controlled mobility or cultural or resource restrictions, they may not be able to take advantage of it. When working with girls and women, underlying issues are central, for example, past trauma, self-esteem, self-doubt and the question “will I ever be good enough.” Organizations can talk this through with girls and women via a mobile phone or online chat, but in truth it’s a much a deeper issue than a cellphone can solve. Corollary and holistic programs are needed to respond to these broader issues in order to have real, in-depth and lasting impact.

Making mYWD programs accessible to girls and young womenWorkforce development programs need to be designed in ways that fit the lives of the girls and women they aim to support. For example,  training needs to happen at a time when women are more able to participate, such as after breakfast and before lunch when the children are at school and the husband is not back yet. Child care may need to be provided. It’s also critical to understand the dynamics of husbands and mothers-in-law who often want to know what young women are doing at all times. Some women may be happy to conceal the fact that they are participating in training, but programs should help women and girls gauge their potential risks. Another strategy is working with husbands and men to generate buy-in so that girls and women can participate in different labor market-related activities. In some cases negative reactions from fathers and husbands deter girls and women from participating or cause them to drop out. Eg.: “I make more money and my husband takes it and he drinks more, and then he beats me more.” The many precise cultural and social issues around gender and mobile require more research. Talking with girls and young women about these barriers and ensuring programs take them into account is an important part of the design process.

Remembering that women and girls are often the last to own phones. GSMA research found that there is indeed a mobile gender gap. Though there may be a high level of mobile penetration at the household level, often it’s the husband, then the first-born son who get a phone, and only afterward that perhaps a daughter or a wife get one — and this scenario is in wealthier households where there are multiple devices. For most families in emerging economies, there is only one or possibly two phones per household, and women and girls only have access to the phone when the man of the house gives it to them. This does vary from country to country, but overall, women are less active and with less access to mobile devices. This is a critical gap if organizations wish to involve girls and young women in mobile-based programs. Knowing the audience, population and context and designing information and communication strategies and workforce development programs that use a variety of channels (traditional and new media as well as face-to-face) to reach girls and women can help avoid marginalizing or not reaching those without mobile access.

Finding the incentive base for men. In many emerging markets, work needs to be done to discover what might incentivize men to allow girls and women to access mobile phones and/or to participate in workforce development activities. Sometimes it is money, but not always. Men may not want women and daughters working or earning money. In Afghanistan, for example, the CEO of the mobile network operator would sit with the men in the households and discuss the idea of women and girls having mobile phones. As part of one program that trained women for work, transportation services were set up just for women. It is important to meet people where they are in terms of cultural barriers and not try to shift things too quickly or all at once or there can be serious backlash.

Encouraging girls and young women to enter high growth sectors. Age-old gender frameworks are still at play and many girls and young women are not interested in entering certain high growth sectors, such as technology. This is a worldwide hurdle in terms of positioning girls and young women for the new jobs being created in these sectors, not just something that happens in ‘developing’ countries. Some programs are reaching out specifically to girls and young women to teach them to code and to break down the idea that only boys and men are smart enough to do it. Encouraging girls and women to see the world by accessing Internet via the mobile web and connecting with other girls and women this way can also be hugely transformative. Communication and marketing can play a role in helping girls and women see the world as it could be, if there were gender parity, and planting a seed that helps girls and young women see the possibilities of their own impact in the world. Enabling girls and young women to create, not just consume content, can change the status quo.

Mobile as a complementary tool, not a replacement.  Mobile can resolve some information and communication aspects, however, in the case of girls and young women, resource-intensive services are often the most needed and the most important, and these cannot always be done via a device. Mentoring and networking, for example, have shown to be highly valued by girls and women. These need to be more than a quick check-in however; they should be strong, active and consistent relationships of support. Some organizations are doing interesting work with mentoring but even with the added benefits of mobile technology, efficient and cost-effective ways to support quality mentoring at scale have not been fully worked out yet.

Data and research

There is a dearth of data around how girls and women use mobiles. Research has been done in some contexts with women at the base of the pyramid, but in many cases it’s difficult to apply conclusions across contexts. Evidence on what works, what is sustainable, and what can effectively scale is missing.

Understanding the meaning of mobile for girls and women. There is a need for more research on women’s ownership and use of devices, and a better understanding of what these devices mean to girls and women in their daily lives, in their family dynamics and with regard to their purchasing habits. In one country, 40% of women interviewed said they didn’t like text messaging, but this may not carry over to other countries or to girls and younger women. Women in one survey in Uganda said they didn’t like borrowing a phone because it meant they would owe a favor to the woman they borrowed it from — this breaks with assumptions that mobiles are freely shared in communities and everyone can access them. In Papua New Guinea, women surveyed in a micro-tasking project said that what they most liked about having mobile access was not the work opportunity, it was being able to call and arrange dinner time with their husband so they would not be beaten if he came home early and it was not ready.

Gaps in gender and age disaggregated data. The huge gap in gender and age disaggregated data on mobile ownership and use is a huge impediment in terms of going to scale. Donor organizations and governments often ask, “Where is the data that shows me this works?” Using mobile for different programs is a big shift for most countries and organizations. It requires behavior change and large investments, and so decision-makers logically want to know if it works. Some organizations avoid working with government as it can slow down processes. Others argue that government buy-in and support are vital to achieving scale and sustainability and that government plays an important role in reducing tariffs and establishing regulations that favor mobile for development initiatives.

One discussant recommended: “Do your baseline. Track your data. Share your data. Share your failures. Collect gender and age disaggregated data.” Large research firms are starting to set up these data but they are for the most part proprietary and are not available to those working in development. Organizations like CGI could use their influence to encourage firms and companies to share some parts of their data. Going beyond micro-level pairing of people with jobs to the use of mobile data at scale to look at development trends could be hugely beneficial.

In summary, more needs to be done to better understand the intersecting areas of gender, mobile technology, and youth workforce development programming. Further reading and resources compiled to complement the Salon are available here.

The Technology Salon methodology was used for the session, including Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. Sign up here to receive notifications about upcoming Salons in New York, Nairobi, San Francisco, London and Washington, DC. 

Visit the Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development Working Group page and sign up to receive information on mYWD Learning Series Events and the upcoming mYWD Landscape Review, due out in July 2013.

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Learning to use a computer in Inhambane, Mozambique

Learning to use a computer in Inhambane, Mozambique

This is a slightly longer version of my Empowering Girls through Information, Communication and Technology, published in The Guardian’s Development Professional’s Network. A full article called “Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?” was published in Redress, the Journal of the Association of Women Educators (Vol 21, No. 2, August 2012, pp 23-29.)

“Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?”

This is the type of taunt a girl might hear when trying to sit in front of one of the computers at the school’s lab, said Fabiola, a young woman from Cameroon while speaking on a panel about girls, education, and new technologies at the 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Fabiola was invited to the CSW to speak about her personal experiences as a girl studying a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Fabiola went on to share how her parents had been instrumental in encouraging her to pursue her studies, even though she was one of few girls who decided to go down the STEM path.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be quite aware that there has been an increasing emphasis in the development sector on girls and ICTs over the past few years. Everyone from large government donors to NGOs to the private sector is banking on girls and technologies, especially mobile phones, to play a big role in helping resolve poverty and make development gains.

Girls themselves consider ICTs to be a major element in their personal growth and development, useful for improving studies, staying informed and earning a living. Girls say that ICTs help them reduce their sense of isolation, acquire new skills, actively participate in national and global dialogues, learn about taboo subjects (such as reproductive health and HIV), feel safer and more in touch with family and friends, and strengthen self-esteem. They often credit participatory media and technology programs with helping them improve their ability to express themselves, speak in public, and to dialogue with adults and other decision makers to negotiate their needs and rights.

But what about access?

The flip side is that for many girls, access to and use of ICTs is a huge challenge. Gender discrimination, lack of confidence, not speaking a major language, low literacy, lack of time and money, and restricted mobility (due to cultural factors or safety) often prevent girls from taking advantage of the benefits of ICTs.

Despite the positive trend in mobile phone and Internet access worldwide, access is often characterized in terms of broad economics, eg., ‘developing’ vs ‘developed’ countries, or it is analyzed at the country level: eg., Kenya vs Mozambique. Analysis needs to go much deeper, however, to include individual factors like class and wealth status, gender, geographic location, age, disability, literacy, language, and device ownership.

Girls living in the same geographic area may have very different levels of access. An English-speaking Kenyan girl living in an urban high rise with her upper class parents will have more access to ICTs than a non-English speaking Kenyan girl with low literacy levels who works long hours cleaning that same apartment and lives in a slum area nearby. The mobile phone ownership capacity of the daughter of a relatively wealthy community leader who owns a small local business will be greater than that of the daughter of one of the poorest families in the same village.

Gender discrimination also comes into play, and in places where men and boys dominate women and girls, they also tend to dominate the available ICTs.  In places where boys are more favored, their confidence to try new things will tend to be higher. Girls often report that boys hog and monopolize ICT equipment and that they criticize, scorn and ridicule girls who are using equipment for the first time, making girls feel too timid to try again.

How can development agencies help girls overcome these barriers?

1)   Keep working to address underlying causes

If girls and women continue to live in greater poverty, with lower education levels, less access to healthcare and other services, less opportunity to work, and lower status in their societies, chances are that their access to and use of ICTs will not level out to that of boys and men.

Getting more girls into school and improving the quality of education could help more girls access and learn to use ICTs. Finding ways to encourage critical thinking and innovation within the education system and ways for girls to join in extra-curricular activities to stimulate new ways of thinking might also help more girls to build the skills and mindsets necessary to enter into the growing number of jobs in the ICT sector.

Advocating for and supporting policies that make Internet more accessible and affordable overall is another area where INGOs can play a role. Libraries and other safe spaces can also help girls and women feel more comfortable and able to access information and learn how to use ICTs.

2) Help change mentalities

A shift in thinking is needed in order to stimulate behavior change that is more conducive to girls participating fully in their family and communities as well as at broader levels. Girls need to be seen as people who can and should take advantage of the potential of ICTs, but they cannot create this shift in thinking on their own. Broad and deep legal, attitudinal and behavior changes need to happen in families, communities, institutions and society in general.

Organizations should engage men and boys as allies in this process. When fathers and male peers are aware, engaged and supportive of girls’ development and girls’ rights, they play a very strong role in changing broader norms and perceptions.

Female role models can also help change mentalities. Having a device or new technology in their possession can increase the status and strength of girls and women as role models and enable them to carry out different and important roles in the community.

3) Offer opportunities

In the short-term, offering specific and accompanied support and opportunities for girls to access and take advantage of ICTs can help fill some of the gaps mentioned above. ICTs can be incredible tools for engaging students in the classroom, making teaching methodologies more participatory, encouraging student-led research and building critical media and digital literacy skills in the process. In places where textbooks are old and outdated, the Internet can offer ways to connect with current events and up-to-date research.

Adding gadgets to the classroom experience involves more than just having the latest digital devices; however, and careful thought needs to be given to the teaching goals, desired outcomes, and issues like relevance and sustainability before deciding on tools and devices.

Special care needs to be taken to ensure that in these controlled spaces, girls have equal access to equipment. Where ICTs cannot be integrated into the classroom or where girls are not in school, non-formal education and extra-curricular activities can give girls a chance to interact with ICTs.

ICTs do hold much promise, yet access for girls remains a challenge. The NGO sector can play a role by addressing underlying causes of gender discrimination and gendered poverty, helping change mentalities, and supporting greater opportunities for girls. For more on ways that INGOs and educators can support girls access and effective use of ICTs, see “Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you’ll be holding a baby’s napkin?”

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The November 14, 2012, Technology Salon NYC focused on ways that ICTs can support work with children who migrate. Our lead discussants were:  Sarah Engebretsen and Kate Barker from Population Council, and Brian Root and Enrique Piracés from Human Rights Watch.

This post summarizes discussions that surfaced around the Population Council’s upcoming Girls on the Move report, which looks at adolescent girls’ (ages 10-19) internal and regional migration in ‘developing’ countries, including opportunity and risk. (In a second blog post I will cover Human Rights Watch’s points and resulting discussions.)

The Girls on the Move report (to be released in February 2013) will synthesize current evidence, incorporate results of specially commissioned research, illustrate experiences of migrant girls, provide examples of promising policies and programs, and offer concrete action-oriented recommendations.

1) How are migrant girls using ICTs?

While the report’s focus is not technology, the research team notes that there is some evidence showing that adolescent girls are using ICTs for:

  • Extending social networks. In China and Southeast Asia, migrant girls are building and accessing personal networks through mobiles and texting. This is especially pronounced among girls who work long hours in tedious jobs in factories, and who do not have much time with family and friends. Text messaging helps them maintain connections with existing social networks. It also gives them space for flirtation, which may not be something they can do in their former rural context because of cultural norms that look down on flirtatious behavior.
  • Finding new jobs. Both boys and girls use mobiles and text messaging for exchanging quick news about job openings. This suggests there could be an opening for program interventions that would connect to migrant children through texting, and that might supply information on community resources, for example, where to go in cases of threat or emergency—that might then propagate across migrant virtual networks.
  • Sending remittances. Based on research with adolescent girls and drawing from examples of adult migrants, it seems likely that a vast majority of migrant girls save money and send it to their families. Evidence on how girl migrants are using remittances is limited, but a survey conducted in Kenya found that 90% of adult migrants had sent money home to families in other parts of Kenya via mobile phone in the 30 days before the survey. There is more research needed on adolescent girls’ remittance patterns. Research is also lacking on adolescent girls’ access to and use of mobile phones and on whether mobile phones are owned or borrowed from another person who is the handset owner. Remittances, however, as one participant pointed out, are obviously only sent by mobile in countries with functioning mobile money systems.
  • Keeping in touch with family back home. In Western Kenya, migrant brides who are very isolated placed great importance on mobiles to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Facebook is very popular in some countries for keeping in touch with families and friends back home. In Johannesburg and Somalia, for example, one participant said “Facebook is huge.” Migrating adolescent girls and domestic working girls in Burkina Faso, however, do not have Internet access at all, via mobiles or otherwise.

2) Areas where ICTs could support work on child protection and migration

  • Child Protection Systems There is a general global move towards developing child protection systems that work for different kinds of vulnerable children. These efforts are important in the transit phase and right upon arrival as these phases are particularly risky for children who migrate. ICTs can play a role in managing information that is part of these systems. Ways to connect community child protection systems into district and national systems need more investigation.
  • Reporting abuse and getting help One example of ways that ICTs are supporting child protection in India and several other countries is Child Help Lines. ChildLine India received almost 23 million calls as of March 2012, with 62% of callers between the ages of 11 and 18. The helplines provide vulnerable groups of children and youth with referrals to local services, and in the best cases they are public-private partnerships that link with national and state governments. Of note is that boys call in more often than girls, and this raises questions about girls’ access to phones to actually make a call to obtain support. It also points to the need for differentiated strategies to reach both boys and girls.

3) Technology and exclusion

  • Social exclusion and access is a specific challenge due to the pronounced social exclusion of many migrant girls, particularly those who are married or working in socially isolated jobs such as child domestic workers. Girls in these situations may not have any access to technology at all, including to mobile phones.  Girls and women especially tend to have less access than men; they are often not the owners of devices. There is a research gap here, as no one actually knows how many migrating adolescent girls access mobiles and how many can borrow a phone for use. It is not clear if girls have their own phones, or if they are using an employer’s or a friend’s phone or a public call box. This would be a key factor in terms of working with adolescent girls and understanding risk and designing programs.
  • Technology should build on – not be seen as a replacement for – social networks. Girls access to social capital is a huge underlying topic. There is normally a rupture in social networks when girls move. They become socially isolated and this puts them at great risk. Domestic girl workers leave home and become more vulnerable to exploitation —  they have no friends or family around them, and they may not be able to access communication technologies. For this reason it is critical to understand that technology cannot replace social networks. A social network is needed first, and then ICTs can allow girls to remain in touch with those in their network. It is very important to think about understanding and/or building social networks before pushing the idea of technology or incorporating technologies.

4) ICTs and potential risk to child migrants

  • SMS, anonymity and privacy. According to a study one participant was involved in, some children and youth report feeling that they can speak up more freely by SMS since they can text privately even in close quarters. Others noted that some organizations are incorporating online counseling services for similar reasons. A study in Nigeria is ongoing regarding this same topic, and in Southeast Asia it has been shown that girls often use text messages to flirt using an alternate identity.
  • Retaliation. Concerns were raised regarding the possibility for retaliation if a child reports abuse or uses a mobile for flirting and the phone is confiscated.  Practices of self-protection and message deleting are not very well implemented in most cases. A participant noted that some of the low-end phones in Tanzania and Kenya periodically delete outgoing messages and only keep 15 messages on the phone at a time. This can help somewhat, though it is not a feature that is particularly aimed at protection and privacy, rather, it is more a function of low memory space. Safer Mobile is one initiative that looks at risk and privacy; however, like most efforts looking at risk, it is focused on political conflict and human rights situations, not at privacy and protection for child migrants or other types of abuse reporting that children may be involved in.

5) Research gaps and challenges

  • Migration contexts. It was emphasized that migration during an emergency situation is very different from a voluntary migration, or seasonal migration. Work is being done around communication with disaster or emergency affected populations via the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, but this theme does not seem to be one of widespread discussion among US-based NGOs and humanitarian organizations.
  • Migrants are not necessarily disadvantaged however a bias exists in that researchers tend to look for disadvantage or those who are disadvantaged. They often ask questions that are biased towards showing that migrants are disadvantaged, but this is not always the case. Sometimes migrating children are the most advantaged. In some contexts migrating requires family support and funds to migrate, and those with the least amount of resources may not be able to move. In some cases migrant children have a huge, strong family structure. In others, children are escaping early marriage, their parents’ passing away or other difficult situations.
  • Integrated information and data crossing. One issue with research around migrants is that most looks solely at migrants and does not cross migration with other information. Many girls migrate with the idea that they will be able to get an education, for example, but there is not a lot of information on whether migrating girls have more or less access to education. The literature tends to focus on girls in the worst situations. In addition, although there are 4 times as many internal migrants as there are international migrants, focus tends to be on international migration.

In a second post, I will cover Human Rights Watch’s work on using data visualization to advocate for the rights of immigrants in the US.

Many thanks to our lead discussants from the Population Council and to the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee for hosting! The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in January 2013. Stay tuned for more information and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

Also, if you have research or examples of how child and youth migrants are using ICTs before, during or after their journey, or information on how organizations are using ICTs to support the process, please let me know.

Related posts and resources:

How can ICTs support and protect children who migrate?

New communication tools and disaster affected communities

Empowering communities with technology tools to protect children

Children on the Move website

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Everybody loves memes and those who work in or care about international development are no exception. One meme that popped up early 2010, is the oft-quoted “there are more mobile phones than toilets.” Apparently, the origin of the phrase was the India census. Subsequently, the statistic was used to raise a point about water and sanitation in India by a UN institute. It was picked up in a New York Times article and became generalized to “more people have [access to] mobile phones than toilets” and “there are more mobile phones than toilets” and other variations.

This simple idea has captured the hearts and minds of many development and technology practitioners and theorists the world over. The phrase has become a staple illustration for those who are looking at the potential of mobiles to change the world. But there is more to it than simple ‘access.’ We need to think beyond access.

What is missed in this meme’s beautiful simplicity is that the mobile access/mobile phones referred to are not necessarily equally distributed. A recent blog post by Marc Bellemare refers to a study he worked on (with Ken Lee) called “Look Who’s Talking: The Impacts of the Intrahousehold Allocation of Mobile Phones on Agricultural Prices.”

“…mobile phones do not seem to be the household public good many development practitioners think they are. In other words, policies designed around the distribution of mobile phones to households (rather than individuals) might contain the seed of their own failure if the intrahousehold [use] of technology matters.

Moreover, after a referee asked us to look at whether major household surveys asked about mobile phone ownership at the household or individual level, I was surprised to find that many of those surveys only collect information on the former.

So if there is one thing I would like our article to change, it’s the kind of data that are collected: We should really collect information on individual rather than on household mobile phone ownership.”

The GSMA and Cheri Blair Foundation study on women and mobiles found that women lag behind in mobile phone ownership in many African, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Women are even further behind in terms of access and use of the Internet.

At the practitioner level, assuming women everywhere can access and use mobiles and Internet can make a project run into problems, as described in this quick video.

In some places where women’s literacy and numeracy skills are quite low, projects designed to share or collect information by mobile can run into additional challenges as related below.

Girls themselves in some places note that despite their interest, boys will physically fight them to access available computers or mock girls who want to learn.

The existence of open and available spaces and platforms (whether virtual or physical) doesn’t automatically mean they are  “accessible” to everyone, including in many cases, to women and girls.

As wonderful as the idea of ‘open’ is (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of ‘open’), ‘open’ can still exclude. Even in purposefully open spaces and frameworks like the Open Knowledge Festival, women lag behind in terms of papers submitted for presentation and women speaking on panels. We lag behind slightly less in terms of doing the legwork of organizing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

At the Beyond Access Conference put on by IREX yesterday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion session on Women and ICTs where we got into some of these issues and talked about how libraries can help. The panelists included Thinley Choden from the READ Bhutan project, Danica MacAvoy from Clinton Global Initiative, and Marieme Jamme of Africa Gathering. The session space was filled with engaged and insightful folks who shared their valuable ideas and experiences as well, including:

  • Numbers that showed the big access gap between men and women.
  • Access is not the only measure, however – as the conference notes we need to go “Beyond Access” to look at use, purpose, and many other aspects.
  • Safety is the number one reason that girls and women give for not accessing ICTs.
  • Libraries are often seen as knowledge centers and conceived of as more reputable spaces than Internet cafes for girls and women to frequent.
  • Librarians and community facilitators at library spaces can serve as mediators to help ensure that access to equipment and other materials is equally open to all.
  • Women mentors and role models, eg., female librarians, are an important way to encourage girls and women to spend time at libraries or to be more confident in accessing information and communicating through technology.
  • One of the most important things a library can do is create safe space for girls and women to gather and discuss issues of importance to them.
  • Depending on context, in some places this needs to be a physical space; in others situations, a virtual space can work.
  • Men and boys play a big role in advocating and encouraging girls and women to access information, to communicate, and to come together and participate.
  • If offered space and opportunity, women and girls (and anyone else) can teach themselves to use new technologies.
  • Libraries will be most successful for women and girls if they facilitate access and sharing of information that is relevant and in demand by women and girls, not what outsiders think should be in demand.
  • Low information access is holding back girls and women from advancing in careers such as ICTs and coding, because up-to-date books are not accessible in many places.
  • Supporting people to ‘join the global network’ through uploading information about themselves and their lives can serve as a tool by which community and personal projects can be examined, discussed and shared.
  • What a library is and what one looks like will vary according to context and culture; the key is having a physical or virtual safe space where information and communication can take place.

So even if there are more mobile phones than toilets, the conversation can’t stop there. We still need to talk about access, and we need to go “beyond access” too, as this great gathering yesterday so aptly noted.

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This post is copied from an email that my colleague Kelly Hawrylyshyn sent to me. Kelly works on disaster risk reduction (DRR) with Plan UK. If you work on DRR and gender, go on, get yourself on the map!

Women and girls make a major contribution to disaster risk reduction and yet their role and involvement often go unacknowledged. In recognition of this gap, the Gender & Disaster Network, the Huairou Commission, Oxfam International and Plan International are facilitating the greater visibility of women and girls as part of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), October 13th, 2012.

Gender inequalities around the world mean that women and girls are most severely affected by disaster. However, they also have significant experience and knowledge to contribute to disaster prevention and to the resilience of communities.

With this in mind, our efforts aim to move beyond portraying women and girls as mere victims of disasters and to provide spaces and opportunities for women and girls to connect and partner freely with local governments and organizations. We aim to showcase how women and girls around the world are carrying out disaster reduction and prevention actions; engaging and leading in climate change awareness activities; taking part in demonstrations and simulations; promoting resilient cities initiatives; and mapping risks.

Using crowdsourcing and crowdmapping tools, we aim to generate greater visibility and recognition of local initiatives by women and girls worldwide for disaster risk reduction.

Visit our map and report your own examples, in advance of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13th, 2012.

We need your help to “put on the map” the numerous research initiatives, media events, publications, training materials, advocacy, workshops, networks/associations, and other activities that are happening and need to be made VISIBLE!

Contributions from both individual women and girls and organizations engaged in DRR are welcomed.

And who knows, you may get to find out about some interesting work taking place in your country, or miles away from you!

Join Us to make visible Women and Girls on the Map!

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When working with women and girls in conflict or displacement situations (actually, when working with anyone, in any situation), we often make assumptions. In this case, the assumption is that “economic opportunities for women and adolescent girls have positive roll-on effects”, according to Mendy Marsh, UNICEF’s Gender Based Violence (GBV) Specialist in Emergencies.

Slide from Marsh’s presentation.

We assume that when women and older adolescent girls have income, they are safer. We assume that when households have income, children are more likely to be in school, that they are accessing healthcare, and that they are better fed, says Marsh.

But do we know whether that is true or not? What does the evidence say?

I took an hour today to listen to Marsh along with Dale Buscher, Senior Director for Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), talk about WRC’s “Peril or Protection: Making Work Safe” Campaign (watch the recording here).

GBV happens in all communities, including stable ones. But when situations become unstable, Marsh noted, a number of additional factors combine to make women and adolescent girls in conflict or displacement settings vulnerable to violence.

Slide from Marsh’s presentation.

These factors include:

  • Inadequate legal frameworks –eg., impunity for those committing GBV and a lack of awareness of rights
  • Lack of basic survival needs  — eg., food, non-food items, fuel, water, safe shelter
  • Lack of opportunities – eg., women’s and girls’ financial dependence, potential for exploitative work
  • Sociocultural aspects – eg., harmful practices, domestic violence, early and forced marriage
  • Insecurity – eg., flight and displacement, no lighting, no safe shelter, non-separate latrines or hygiene facilities for men, women, boys and girls, or facilities that don’t lock or are insecure; dependency on males for information

Emphasis during conflict situations tends to focus on response not prevention, said Marsh. Different agencies and sectors often work in isolation, but no single agency or sector can address GBV. It needs to be addressed across all sectors with strong community participation, including that of men and boys.

Often, she noted, livelihoods programs are brought in as a response to women’s needs and based on the assumptions above. There can be unintended negative effects from these programs and we need to be aware of them so that they can be mitigated.

Following Marsh’s introduction, Busher explained that because WRC wanted to better understand any potential unintended consequences from livelihoods programs aimed at women in conflict or displacement situations, in 2009 they conducted research and produced “Peril or Protection: The Link between Livelihoods and Gender-Baed Violence in Displacement Settings.

There is a very weak evidence base in terms of the links between gender based violence and livelihoods programming, he said.

WRC found that in some cases livelihood programs implemented by NGOs actually increased women’s and adolescent girls’ risks of GBV because of factors such as their entering the public sphere, going to market, using unsafe transportation and domestic conflict. The economic opportunities heightened the risks that women and girls faced. Providing them with income generation opportunities did not necessarily make women and girls safer or give them more control over resources.

Slide from Buscher’s presentation.

The answer is not to stop creating economic opportunities, however. Rather it is to design and implement these kinds of programs in responsible ways that do no harm and that are based on in-depth consultations with women, girls and their communities, livelihoods practitioners and GBV specialists.

Based on their research and with input from different stakeholders, WRC designed a toolkit to help those creating livelihoods programs for and with women and adolescent girls to do so in a way that lessens the risk of GBV.

The process outlined in the toolkit includes secondary research, safety mapping, a safety tool, and a decision chart.

Based on the secondary research, practitioners work with adolescent girls, women and the wider community to map the places that are important for livelihoods, explained Buscher. For example, the bus, a taxi stand, a supply shop, the fields.

Community members discuss where women and girls are safe and where they are not. They describe the kinds of violence and abuse that girls and women experience in these different places.

They identify strategies for protection based on when GBV takes place in the different locations. For example, does it happen year-round? At certain times of year? Only at night? Only on weekends?

They identify and discuss the most risky situations. Is a girl or woman most at risk when she is selling by the side of the road? Alone in a shop?

They also discuss which relationships are the most prone to GBV. Bosses? Suppliers? Buyers? Intimate Partners? Together the women and girls share and discuss the strategies that they use to protect themselves.

An additional tool identifies the social safety net that a women or adolescent girl has, considering that social networks are important both for livelihoods as well as for protection. Ways to strengthen them are discussed.

Finally, a decision chart is created with a list of livelihood activities and the information from the previous charts and discussions to determine the levels of risk in the different kinds of livelihood activities and the potential strategies for mitigating GBV.

Decisions are also made by the adolescent girls and women regarding which risks they are willing to take for which levels of livelihoods.

Marsh and Buscher concluded that safe, dignified work may be the most effective form of protection because it can help mitigate negative coping strategies such as transactional sex, child labor, pulling children out of school, and selling rations.

Livelihoods, however, should not be thought of as a little bit of money to supplement daily rations. They should be sustainable and help meet basic needs in an ongoing way; and they should lead to dignified work. The amount earned and the risks involved for women and girls need to be worth it for them, considering all the other domestic chores that they are required to do. NGOs need to consult with and listen to girls and women to better understand their needs, coping strategies.

If you’d like to learn more about the research, and the toolkit, WRC offers a free e-learning tool on how to make work safe.

You can also follow the #safelivelihoods conversation on twitter.

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‘Breast flattening,’ also known as ‘breast ironing’ or ‘breast massage,’ is a practice whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are massaged, pounded, pressed, or patted with an object, usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely.

Rebecca Tapscott* spent last August in the area of Bafut, in the Northwest, Anglophone region of Cameroon, where a 2006 study by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) found an 18% prevalence rate of breast flattening. The practice has been known as breast ‘ironing,’ however, Rebecca opts to use the term ‘flattening’ to decrease stigma and encourage open conversation about a practice that remains largely hidden.** Rebecca wanted to understand the role of breast flattening in the broader context of adolescence in Cameroon, including past and present motivations for breast flattening; cultural foundations; relation to other forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C); how and where it is practiced; the psychological and the physical implications of the practice on individual girls.

Rebecca published her findings via the Feinstein International Center in May 2012, in a paper titled: Understanding Breast “Ironing”: A Study of the Methods, Motivations, and Outcomes of Breast Flattening Practices in Cameroon.

She visited our office late last year to share the results of her work with staff at the Plan USA office, explaining that there is currently very little research or documentation of breast flattening. The GIZ study is the only quantitative study on the practice, and there do not seem to be any medical studies on breast flattening. It’s a practice that is believed to affect 1 out of 4 girls in Cameroon, more commonly in some regions than in others. Of note is that research on breast flattening has thus far only been conducted in Cameroon, thus creating the impression that the practice is uniquely Cameroonian, when in reality, it may be a regional phenomenon.

Organizations working to end breast flattening do so with the aim of protecting girls. However, the question of protection is an interesting one depending on who you talk with. Rebecca found that those who practice breast flattening also believe they are protecting girls. “Many mothers believe that unattended, a girl’s breasts will attract advances of men who believe physically developed girls are ‘ripe’ for sex. Breast flattening is seen as a way to keep girls safe from men so that they are able to stay in school and avoid pregnancy.”

According to Rebecca, breast flattening is practiced out of a desire to delay a girl’s physical development and reduce the risk of promiscuous behavior. Proponents of the practice consider that “men will pursue ‘developed’ girls and that girl children are not able to cope with or deter men’s attention. They see that promiscuity can result in early pregnancy, which limits educational, career, and marriage opportunities, shames the family, increases costs to family (newborn, loss of bride price, health complications from early childbirth or unsafe abortion).” In addition, there is the belief that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about puberty, and therefore should not yet develop breasts. Another reason given for the practice is the belief that girls who develop before their classmates will be the target of teasing and become social outcasts. There is also, for some, the belief that large breasts are unattractive or not fashionable.

Rebecca cites a poor understanding of human biology as one reason that the practice persists. Some of the beliefs around it include: “Belief that sensitivity and pain during breast development indicates that the growth is too early and must be artificially delayed until the girl is older. Belief that when a girl develops breasts she will stop growing taller. Belief that puberty can be delayed by delaying breast development. Belief that for breasts to grow properly, the first growth should always be repressed (like baby teeth). Belief that if breasts begin growing at a young age, they will grow too large or be misshapen, resulting in a displeasing or disproportionate female form. Belief that breasts and other outward signs of sexuality develop in accordance with a girl’s interest in sex, and therefore a developed girl is soliciting sexual advances or is a ‘bad’ girl. Belief that when a girl develops breasts, she believes she has matured and subsequently, she becomes less obedient. Belief that it will improve breast feeding at a later age.”

“…For mothers there is the perception that we should delay the development of girls as much as possible, believing that physical development shows maturity. Men look at girls and talk amongst themselves and say, “she’s ripe for sex.” They are not looking for marriage prospects…Men are aggressive. In pidgin, they say “she got get done big,” meaning, she’s matured and ready for sex. I can go after her now. Women, on the other hand, know that their daughters are just kids.” ~ journalist that Rebecca interviewed.

Rebecca also heard explanations such as “A girl will stop growing taller because the weight of her breasts will hold her down. One can delay puberty by delaying breast growth. If the breasts hurt during puberty, they are developing too early.” There are also many beliefs related to a girl’s development and her sexual reputation. Some of these beliefs include that a girl with large breasts is a ‘bad girl’. This stems from the belief that breasts start to develop when a man touches them or if a girl is thinking about sex, going to night clubs or watching pornography. Rebecca found that many of these beliefs were held across all segments of society, from the very well educated to those with no formal education.

“The body responds to psychological ideas. If a girl looks for a “friend,” her breasts will grow faster. If she is interested in boys or watches pornography, her body will develop faster.” ~ Interviewee at the Ministry of Social Affairs

“If a girl is interested in sex and thinks about it a lot, she will develop faster. I saw two girls of 12 years, one of whom was very developed physically and the other was not. The one who was developed could speak very frankly about sex, showing that she was knowledgeable from some experience, while the other girl was very naive and shy.” ~ Teacher

Because of potential stigma or harm to girls who talked about undergoing breast flattening, Rebecca only interviewed a few teenaged girls directly during this phase of her research. Instead, she mainly interviewed older women, as well as a few boys and men. She found that most women who had experienced breast flattening didn’t seem to remember the experience as extremely traumatic; however, she commented, “most are remembering from back in the day. Most at first said didn’t really hurt but then after a while into the interview, they’d remember, well, yes it hurt.” Rebecca was surprised at the number of people who said that heated leaves were used, because the media normally reports that a grinding stone or pestle is used for breast flattening.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandmother did a form of breast flattening to me. This was in 1984. I was walking around with her shoulders hunched forward to hide my developing chest, so my grandmother called me to the kitchen. She warmed some fresh leaves on the fire and said something in the dialect, like a pleading to the ancestors or spirits. Then she applied the leaves to my chest, and used them to rub and pat my breasts flat. She would also rub and pat my back, so as to make the chest flat and even on the front and the back. It hurts because the chest is so sensitive then—but they are not pressing too hard.” ~ 38 year old woman from the community

“To do the practice, I warmed the pestle in the fire, and used it in a circular motion to press the breasts flat. I did it once per day for over a week—maybe 8 or 9 days. I massaged them well, and they went back for seven years.” ~ 53-year-old woman attending a maternal health clinic in Bafut, attending with a different daughter whose breasts she did not flatten

“Until about a year ago, I believed that when a girl is interested in sex, watches porn, or lets boys touch their breasts, her breasts will grow larger. I think my mother must believe this. My ideas changed when I saw my own friends—I knew they were virgins, but they had large breasts. Also when my own breasts got bigger, and it was not because a man was touching them.” ~ Journalist in Bamenda

There is currently no consensus on whether the practice is effective at reducing the size of a girl’s breasts or if it has long-term effects on breast size. “People told me completely different things gave the same result, or people cited the very same practices as yielding different results,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca’s findings indicate that the practice of breast flattening is not a longstanding ‘traditional’ practice. Many people reported that it became more popular with urbanization. “People [who immigrated to cities] didn’t know their neighbors and they were worried about the safety of their daughters. It seems that an old practice that was used for ‘shaping’ was repurposed and adapted. Breast flattening is a very intimate and personal thing between mother and daughter. It doesn’t happen to all daughters. It’s very difficult to track, and there is no association with ethnic groups, education, socioeconomic levels, religion, etc.,” she explained.

“Most men don’t know about it. One boy said he thought it was good to protect girls.” When she talked holistically with men about what they look for in a woman, Rebecca said, “an interest in chastity and virginity came out very clearly. In Cameroon the average age for girls to lose virginity is 13-17, and it’s the same for boys. According to studies, for most, the first sexual experience is unwilling.”

Most doctors that Rebecca talked to had never heard of the practice. One doctor in Yaoundé said he had seen first and second degree burns as a result. Some cite that edemia may be a result. Development organizations like GIZ say it can cause cysts, cancer, and other difficulties but also cited that only 8% of women report suffering negative side effects, while 18% report that their breasts “fell” or sagged at an early age.

Many women who Rebecca interviewed considered the practice a very low concern compared to other problems that impact on their development, such as illiteracy, sexual exploitation, poverty and unemployment. “The women that I talked to,” said Rebecca, “often asked me, ‘Why are you asking me about this? It’s such a small thing compared to other things we have to face.’”

Given that there is not much research or consensus around breast flattening in Cameroon and the broader region, Rebecca’s work may be of use to local and international organizations that are working to promote women’s and children’s rights. Rebecca emphasizes that most people who engage in what are commonly referred to as ‘harmful traditional practices’ including female genital cutting (FGC) and breast flattening, actually do so with their child’s best interest in mind, as a means of protecting and promoting the child within the community and following social norms. Therefore, frightening or berating people may not be the best approach to discourage the practice of breast flattening. Community input will be needed to identify the root causes of the practice for it to become obsolete. Better sex education and a reduction in stigma around talking about sexual reproductive health may also help. Men will need to be part of the solution, and so will mothers who currently feel the need to take protection of their daughters into their own hands. Like many similar practices, it’s not likely that breast flattening will end until other systems and environments that set the stage for it also change.

*Rebecca worked with Plan Cameroon for several weeks on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) Project last June and July. She traveled to Bafut following her internship to conduct independent research.

**This distinction is similar to the difference between the terms female genital ‘mutilation’ and female genital ‘cutting.’

Read the full report.

Contact Rebecca for more information: rebecca.tapscott [at] gmail.com

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The field of Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) tends to be dominated by men. Is this because men are more suited to working in technology? Because women don’t want to? Because boys are more interested from an early age?

Probably not. What is more likely is that there are factors throughout girls’ lives that discourage them from going into this field.

At a personal level, I’ve been lucky enough to work in settings and environments that are largely positive towards women in this field. I’ve met and collaborated with numerous wonderful men who treat me with respect and who have been more than willing to work side-by-side, to help me out, to ask for advice, to share their own experience and information, and to support and promote the work I’m involved in. The fact that I work more on the social side of ICTs rather than the super technical, engineering or ‘coding’ side, however, may have something to do with my positive experiences.

Many women who work on the more ‘techie’ side report feeling discriminated against, and the numbers tell a story that’s worth looking into.

In the US, for example…

When women are shown in the media working in technology, they are often seen as rare, they are patronized or sexualized, and their appearance is noted and commented on. (And don’t even get me started on ‘booth babes’ at for-profit technology conferences.)

As Miriam writes in ‘First Female Engineer Graces the Cover of Wired Magazine‘, ‘I’m glad they’ve featured her here, and I’m glad that she’s not scantily clad like most of the women who grace the covers of national magazines. But when will we get beyond the idea of Rosie the Riveter? When can women across fields just be acknowledged the way their male counterparts are–for their accomplishments? …Posing her like Rosie feels antiquated, and also draws attention only to the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s world–not that she’s an incredible engineer in her own rite [sic].’

It’s the same, or perhaps more pronounced, the world over.

At last year’s Commission on the Status of Women, Fabiola, a 17 year old from Cameroon commented: “when a girl succeeds to sit on a computer lab, a boy will raise his voice on her, saying: ‘Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?’

In other parts of her talk, Fabiola recognized the important role that her parents played in keeping her in school and encouraging her to study for a career related to the sciences.

This highlights the importance of not only education, but of positive parental and community support and a broader set of changes that allow girls to have more freedom and more opportunities. Girls need to know that they have options open to them. And boys need to know too that girls can ‘do stuff’. Women role models are important, and where there are not yet women in certain careers to serve as role models, positive support from men to encourage girls to explore their options is key.

More girls and women in ICTs is not only an individual opportunity for women to earn an income. It can also mean that ICTs products and tools will be designed with women in mind. And I’m not talking about making things pink and purple to appeal to women, I’m talking about the design that responds to real needs in the real lives of women and girls around the world.

As part of a broader effort to encourage more girls to consider wider options, ‘Girls in ICTs Day‘, was established last year and will now be an annual event on the UN Calendar, to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in April.

Many initiatives are underway already to support girls and women in the ICT sector. More governments recognize the importance and necessity of taking deliberate steps. The ITU’s latest report notes that “The choices made by policymakers, enterprises and individuals on investment in education and training must strive for gender equality—that is, to give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.”

Positive attitudes and support from families, friends, communities, the private sector and the media is also part of the solution to helping girls see their potential.

The Girls in ICT Portal offers statistics and advice on how to encourage more girls to consider ICTs as a career option. 

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