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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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