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The February 5 Technology Salon in New York City asked “What are the ethics in participatory digital mapping?” Judging by the packed Salon and long waiting list, many of us are struggling with these questions in our work.

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.

During the Salon we were only able to scratch the surface, and we hope to get together soon for a more in-depth session (or maybe 2 or 3 sessions – stay tuned!) to further unpack the ethical issues around participatory digital community mapping.

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

Is digital mapping really about communities, or are we really just using communities as a backdrop to showcase our own innovation and coolness or that of our donors?

2) Can you do justice to both process and product?

Maps should be less an “in-out tool“ and more part of a broader program. External agents should be supporting communities to articulate and to be full partners in saying, doing, and knowing what they want to do with maps. Digital mapping may not be better than hand drawn maps, if we consider that the process of mapping is just as or more important than the final product. Hand drawn maps can allow for important discussions to happen while people draw. This seems to happens much less with the digital mapping process, which is more technical, and it happens even less when outside agents are doing the mapping. A hand drawn map can be imbued with meaning in terms of the size, color or placement of objects or borders. Important meaning may be missed when hand drawn maps are replaced with digital ones.

Digital maps, however, can be printed and further enhanced with comments and drawings and discussed in the community, as some noted. And digital maps can lend a sense of professionalism to community members and help them to make a stronger case to authorities and decisions makers. Some participants raised concerns about power relations during mapping processes, and worried that using digital tools could emphasize those.

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

Community mapping is difficult. The goal of external agents should be to train local people so that they can be owners of the process and sustain it in the long term. This takes time. Often, however, mapping experts are flown in for a week or two to train community members. They leave people with some knowledge, but not enough to fully manage the mapping process and tools. If people end up only half-trained and without local options to continue training, their time has essentially been wasted. In addition, if young people see the training as a pathway to a highly demanded skill set yet are left partially trained and without access to tools and equipment, they will also feel they have wasted their time.

4) Data extraction

When agencies, academics and mappers come in with their clipboards or their GPS units and conduct the same surveys and studies over and over with the same populations, people’s time is also wasted. Open digital community mapping comes from a viewpoint that an open map and open data are one way to make sure that data that is taken from or created by communities is made available to the communities for their own use and can be accessed by others so that the same data is not collected repeatedly. Though there are privacy concerns around opening data, there is a counter balanced ethical dilemma related to how much time gets wasted by keeping data closed.

5) The (missing) link between data and action

Related to the issue of time wasting is the common issue of a missing link between data collected and/or mapped, action and results. Making a map identifying issues is certainly no guarantee that the government will come and take care of those issues. Maps are a means to an end, but often the end is not clear. What do we really hope the data leads to? What does the community hope for? Mapping can be a flashy technology that brings people to the table, but that is no guarantee that something will happen to resolve the issues the map is aimed at solving.

6) Intermediaries are important

One way to ensure that there is a link between data and action is to identify stakeholders that have the ability to use, understand and re-interpret the data. One case was mentioned where health workers collected data and then wanted to know “What do we do now? How does this affect the work that we do? How do we present this information to community health workers in a way that it is useful to our work?” It’s important to tone the data down and make them understandable to the base population, and to also show them in a way that is useful to people working at local institutions. Each audience will need the data to be visualized or shared in a different, contextually appropriate way if they are going to use the data for decision-making. It’s possible to provide the same data in different ways across different platforms from paper to high tech. The challenge of keeping all the data and the different sharing platforms updated, however, is one that can’t be overlooked.

7) What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?

There is a viewpoint that data must be open and that locking up data is unethical. On the other hand, there are questions about research ethics and protocols when doing mapping projects and sharing or opening data. Are those who do mapping getting informed consent from people to use or open their data? This is the cornerstone of ethics when doing research with human beings. One must be able to explain and be clear about the risks of this data collection, or it is impossible to get truly informed consent. What consent do community mappers need from other community members if they are opening data or information? What about when people are volunteering their information and self-reporting? What does informed consent mean in those cases? And what needs to be done to ensure that consent is truly informed? How can open data and mapping be explained to those who have not used the Internet before? How can we have informed consent if we cannot promise anyone that their data are really secure? Do we have ethics review boards for these new technological ways of gathering data?

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

It may seem like time wasting, and there may be privacy and protection questions, but there are are also ethical implications of not having community data. When tools like satellite remote sensing are used to do slum mapping, for example, data are very dehumanized and can lead to sterile decision-making. The data that come from a community itself can make these maps more human and these decisions more humane. But there is a balance between the human/humanizing side and the need to protect. Standards are needed for bringing in community and/or human data in an anonymized way, because there are ethical implications on both ends.

9) The problem with donors….

Big donors are not asking the tough questions, according to some participants. There is a lack of understanding around the meaning, use and value of the data being collected and the utility of maps. “If the data is crap, you’ll have crap GIS and a crap map. If you are just doing a map to do a map, there’s an issue.” There is great incentive from the donor side to show maps and to demonstrate value, because maps are a great photo op, a great visual. But how to go a level down to make a map really useful? Are the M&E folks raising the bar and asking these hard questions? Often from the funder’s perspective, mapping is seen as something that can be done quickly. “Get the map up and the project is done. Voila! And if you can do it in 3 weeks, even better!”

Some participants felt the need for greater donor awareness of these ethical questions because many of them are directly related to funding issues. As one participant noted, whether you coordinate, whether it’s participatory, whether you communicate and share back the information, whether you can do the right thing with the privacy issue — these all depend on what you can convince a donor to fund. Often it’s faster to reinvent the wheel because doing it the right way – coordinating, learning from past efforts, involving the community — takes more time and money. That’s often the hard constraint on these questions of ethics.

Check this link for some resources on the topic, and add yours to the list.

Many thanks to our lead discussants, Robert Banick from the American Red Cross and Erica Hagen from Ground Truth, and to Population Council for hosting us for this month’s Salon!

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in March. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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This week the mEducation Alliance* will host its second symposium, bringing together institutions and organizations that are interested in and/or supporting the use of mobile technologies in education.

The main theme for this year’s Symposium is partnership, and sessions fall into the following categories: public-private partnerships, mobiles for reading, mobiles for inclusive education and assistive technology, mobiles for education system strengthening, mobiles for youth workforce development, and mobiles for education in crisis and conflict settings.

One reason I’m excited about the Symposium is that I’ll be sharing preliminary findings and seeking input on some research around mobiles and youth workforce development (mYWD) that I’m working on for the mEducation Alliance. The research will culminate in a landscape review published around this time next year. The topic is timely considering the so-called ‘youth bulge’ in many countries, the huge numbers of young people (including those of all education levels) unable to find or create sustainable livelihoods, and the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices.

In general, youth workforce development programs seek to identify the skills and knowledge that specific industries need and to support youth to improve their education and develop the hard and soft skills required to work in those industries. Mobile technologies are being integrated in a number of ways in YWD; from mobile phone repair training to the use of ‘pico’ projectors for training to micro-tasking.

The mYWD landscape review will revolve around key questions such as: Which organizations are working on mYWD? How are mobile technologies currently being used in youth workforce development programming? Are there additional areas where they could be considered? What factors hinder or facilitate the use of mobile technologies in YWD programs and what are some of the challenges? Is there any evidence that mobile technology is having a positive or negative impact on youth workforce development? One important aspect of the study will be its consideration of the intersection of gender and mYWD from a few different angles, including how gender impacts access to mobile youth workforce development programs, how mobiles affect access to youth workforce development programs, and whether mYWD programs have a differential impact on young men and young women.

A working group will be formed to delve more deeply into the topic of mYWD. At the Symposium, we’ll be gathering initial input about what the working group’s priorities should be and what are the best channels and means to discuss topics and share mYWD-related learning. The working group will be open to a wide range of organizations and institutions interested in a more in-depth examination of mYWD.

In connection with the working group and the landscape review, five learning events will take place over the next several months on mYWD sub-themes. These will be documented for sharing and on-line discussion on the mEducation website. I’ll also be doing some key informant interviews and constant scanning of the literature and the field in general over the next several months. If you have something to share, please be in touch!

If you are attending the mEducation Symposium and you are interested in youth, mobile technologies, and workforce development, be sure to check out the mYWD track. (And don’t forget to RSVP for ICT4Drinks on Thursday evening!)

If you’re not attending the Symposium or are otherwise unable to attend the mYWD sessions, keep an eye out for the upcoming Learning Series events or contact Matt French (MFrench [at] jbsinternational [dot] com) or me (lindaraftree [at] gmail [dot] com) for information on the landscape review or to join the working group.

I’m still casting the net far and wide for information on mYWD, so any relevant information is most welcome!

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*The Mobiles for Education (mEducation) Alliance is an international collaborative effort between bilateral and multilateral donors, NGOs, foundations, private sector partners, academic researchers, and implementing organizations. Our collective agenda is to explore cutting‐edge intersections between mobile technologies, education and development, to reduce duplicative efforts, and promote collective knowledge‐sharing. The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones and coverage and the current and possible utilization of other mobile devices, including e‐Readers, tablet computers, flash memory, micro/ “pico” projectors, and audio/visual devices among other technologies, provide valuable opportunities for supporting quality education impact in developing countries.

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On Tuesday, August 14@zehrarizvi and I will be hosting a Twitter Chat on the topic of new technologies and ‘children on the move.’

As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m working on some research at Plan International USA, funded by Oak Foundation. The research aims to compile a ‘State of the Practice’ report that will include examples and case studies of current ICT use by, with, among and for ‘children on the move'; applicable cases and lessons learned from other sectors; gaps, challenges, areas where ICTs may pose new or additional risk; and remaining questions and challenges for future exploration and collaboration.

In talking about this research with Zehra (who is working at the Women’s Refugee Commission on a project related to the empowerment and protection of displaced adolescent girls, also supported by Oak) we realized we are both quite interested in exploring the role of new ICTs in supporting and protecting children who are migrating, displaced or otherwise ‘on the move’. So we decided to collaborate on the Twitter chat.

We’re hoping to gather ideas and perspectives from people working in the areas of migration, working children, displacement, child protection, conflict settings, environmental migration, diaspora communities, ICTs and other related areas.

Please join us on Tuesday, August 14 from 9-10.30 EST. The hashtag will be #CoMandICT.

We will cover 4 key questions in this first chat:

  • Which organizations are working in the area of child migration or ‘children on the move’ and what are they doing?
  • Are new technologies involved? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Are there existing youth networks that could provide insight into how new technologies are used by children/youth on the move?
  • What else should we know about? What are we missing in our thinking about this project? Who should we talk with?

Tips for a good Twitter Chat:

  • Login 5 mins ahead of time and be ready with a short introduction (eg, “Joe Garcia here, child protection at XYZ in Malawi, managing cross-border project w working children” or “Cathy Kramer, ICT specialist working on mobile data privacy issues at TechTechTechieFirm”).
  • Tools like TweetChat which automatically add the hashtag and refresh often are helpful to keep up with the conversation.

We look forward to chatting on Tuesday August 14th at 9 am EST and welcome any questions or comments before then!

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Over the next year, I’ll be working on some research supported by Oak Foundation* that will look at the intersection of ICTs and children who migrate, a.k.a. ‘Children on the Move.’ As part of the research, we will be conducting a Twitter chat on Tuesday, August 14, at 9h EST and an ongoing online discussion hosted by New Tactics from October 17 through 23.

I hope interested folks will join to share experiences, good practice, challenges, thoughts and ideas on the intersection of ICTs and Children on the Move.

Background

Globally, some 214 million persons are international migrants. In addition, there are an estimated 740 million internal migrants according to the Global Movement for Children. Youth make up a large share of migrants from and in developing countries. Shifts in demographic factors, economic disparity, violent conflict and state failure, natural disasters, resource and environmental pressures, especially climate change, and lack of opportunities for education or employment mean that this number is likely to increase. About one-third of migrants from developing countries are between the ages of 12 and 25, including millions of children under the age of 18. (Stats from here.) “Yet, in debates on both child protection and migration, children who move are largely invisible. As a result, policy responses to support these vulnerable children are fragmented and inconsistent.”

Drawing from the African Movement of Working Children and Youth’s report “Early Exodus and Child Trafficking in West Africa: What progress have working children and youth made?” Sept 2008

‘Children on the Move’

Children migrate and move for a host of reasons. They may move on their own will to seek improved opportunities. They may be escaping violence and abuse in the home or at school or running away from an arranged marriage or other cultural practice. They may move due to a lack of opportunity, reduced resources, conflict, or disaster. They may want to get away from life in a refugee camp, or flee other kinds of hardship. They might migrate together with parents or other adults, or they may go alone or with others their age. The migration decision may be made by children themselves, or they may be encouraged by their parents.

In the past, the phenomenon of child mobility has not been seen in its full scope. Children who migrated were often automatically lumped in with those who were trafficked against their will. Programs to support children on the move have not always addressed the variety of motivations and situations. This lack of understanding of the myriad of reasons for children’s mobility has hindered efforts to support and protect them in their different scenarios. More recently efforts have been made to better understand children’s mobility, for example this fascinating 2008-2010 regional study project, supported by a broad platform of child protection agencies, documented and analyzed the many forms taken by the mobility of children and youths in West and Central Africa.

The term ‘Children on the Move‘ has been suggested to describe this group of children under the age of 18 who have aims, motivations and different life circumstances. This is a group which transcends categories. These children may be in a ‘pre-mobility, mobility or post-mobility’ situation (either having arrived to a destination or having returned home). They may also be ‘children left behind’ by their parents or guardians, who, without abandoning them, have emigrated for work within their country of residence or abroad. They may be stateless children, who also suffer the risks and vulnerabilities of mobility.

Risks Children on the Move face

When children move against their will, and /or in absence of protection services and actors, they become highly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor, exploitation and other abuses. This vulnerability is present before they move, during their trip, once they reach a new destination or even after they return home, and therefore support and protection need to be considered from the time they are thinking about moving (or others are thinking about moving them), through the actual migration or ‘move’, upon their arrival, and in the case of their return. In addition, some children may be involved in a series of migrations or they may migrate seasonally. “During movement, a child can float from one sub category to the other. For example, an internally displaced child can be recruited by armed forces or moved across borders for the purpose of exploitation. The risks and opportunities differ per trajectory and conditions of movement,” according to the CoM website.

Captured from “Best practices in the fight against early exodus and child trafficking” as printed in the African Movement of Working Children and Youth’s “Early Exodus and Child Trafficking in West Africa: What progress have working children and youth made?” report, Sept 2008.

Children who migrate often face discrimination and marginalization due to beliefs and policies that treat migration as a problem and children who migrate as criminals, and therefore a great deal of work needs to be done to change perceptions and increase societal awareness around the situation of children on the move. Protecting children and reducing their risk of exploitation is a mandate, regardless of the reasons for which they move or migrate.

A systemic approach to protection

In order to improve support for and protection of children on the move, it’s important to look at the situation holistically and systemically and to include the aforementioned different phases of mobility. In addition, several areas need consideration, including children’s own needs and rights; children’s self-protection; community-based protection; government responsibilities and social services; advocacy and public policy and so on. Duty bearers and donors need to improve coordination across silos and borders in order to get better at information exchange, research and data analysis; the creation of prevention and awareness strategies and programs; monitoring actions during all stages; and feedback mechanisms and accountability. (See the proceedings from the CoM Conference for more details.)

How can ICTs help?

Alongside the growth in children’s mobility, access to new technologies, specifically the mobile phone, has exploded. Yet most often, when child protection and ICTs are mentioned in the same sentence, it is with regard to cyber security and protecting children from the Internet or potential on-line predators.

ICTs are playing a huge role in connecting diaspora with those ‘back home.’  The question arises: How are or how could ICTs be enhancing child protection initiatives and supporting children on the move.

The positive and empowering role of ICTs to support children’s self-protection, improve information and communication via new technology tools and enhance systemic approaches to risk reduction has not been fully developed with regard to child protection in its broader sense, or with regard to child mobility and child protection.

The research 

The research will aim to compile a ‘State of the Practice’ report that will include examples and case studies of current ICT use by, with, among and for CoM; applicable cases and lessons learned from other sectors; gaps, challenges, areas where ICTs may pose new or additional risk; and remaining questions and challenges for future exploration and collaboration.

Certainly new questions, frameworks and areas to explore will arise along the way, but at present, questions include:

  • What needs do children have in different categories and stages of mobility and how are these being (or how could they be) enhanced via better use of new ICTs?
  • Which new technologies are already accessible and being used by various stakeholders (e.g. children, parents and caretakers, intermediaries, broader communities, local child protection committees and ‘safe houses’, local institutions, social workers, experts, civil servants, governments, national and international NGOs, local and national law enforcement agencies), especially children, adolescents and youth; during pre-mobility, mobility and post-mobility, and upon return, endogenous or institutional, and for what purpose or to what end?
  • What information and communication systems are currently in use at child and family, community, district, national, transnational /regional and global levels for supporting or protecting children on the move and can these systems be improved, promoted or better accessed using new ICTs such as mobile phones?
  • Are there existing scalable, replicable or adaptable examples of the use of ICTs in this area we can learn from? What were the successes, challenges, failures and lessons/good practices?
  • Can new ICTs support communication for development (C4D) approaches and models to help children on the move protect themselves, inform them of available support, and/or change broader societal attitudes toward migrating children to more positive and supportive ones?
  • What can we learn from how ICTs are being used in other areas (health, human rights monitoring, data gathering / tracking, early warning systems, disasters and emergencies)? Which of these might lend themselves to use with, for, among and by children on the move? Are there relevant evaluations or case studies we can look at and learn from?
  • What are the specific challenges and risks in terms of children on the move that need special attention and exploration when designing programs or eco-systems that integrate ICTs? Security? Privacy? Connectivity? Cost? Context? Sustainability? Feasibility?
  • Where do we take it from here (what needs to happen next)?

Please join us for the Twitter chat on August 14 at 9 a.m. EST.  We’ll be using the hashtag #CoMandICT for the discussion and to keep track of future Twitter conversations on this topic. Stay tuned here at Wait… What? or contact me @meowtree or by email for more information.

Please also consider joining the broader discussion on “Empowering Communities with Technology Tools to Protect Children” the week of October 17-23 hosted by our friends over at New Tactics.

Some related resources:

The excellent 2008 report by the African Movement of Working Children and Youth: Early Exodus and Child Trafficking in West Africa: What progress have working children and youth made? 

The AMWCY’s 2009 report “From the gong gong to ICTs

The fascinating study by a consortium of child protection groups on Child Mobility in West and Central Africa.

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*This work is supported through a grant from Oak Foundation to Plan International USA.

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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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Because I am a Girl 2010

The urban and digital environments are the 21st century’s fastest-growing spheres. Both offer enormous potential for girls around the world, but prejudice and poverty exclude millions of girls from taking advantages of the transformative possibilities that cities and information and communication technologies (ICTs) can offer.  Exploitation and the threat of violence exist in both urban spaces and in cyberspace, especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable girls.

Since 2007, Plan has published annual reports on the state of the world’s girls. The 2010 ‘Because I am a Girl report’ is called Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape. It focuses on girls in these two rapidly expanding spaces: the urban and the digital.

The piece that I’m most interested is the segment on Girls and ICTs, since that’s the main area I currently work on. (Disclosure: I contributed to the development of the chapter). To give you a taste of what’s in the report, here’s a summary of Chapter 4: Adolescent girls and communications technologies – opportunity or exploitation. You can download the full report here.

Chapter 4’s introduction explains that online behaviors mimic offline behaviors.  Empowerment and abuse of girls reveals itself through technology as it does in other areas of girls’ lives.  Through girls own voices, expert opinion and original research, the report highlights the positive and negative consequences of ICTs, in particular mobile phones and the Internet. The authors talk about the positive ideas and new ways of thinking that ICTs open up for girls in terms of learning, networking, campaigning and personal development. They then discuss the darker side of technology  — how cyberspace makes it easier for sexual predators to operate with impunity, where girls are prime targets for abuse, and where girls are sometimes perpetrators themselves.

Section Two offers girl-related statistics on the digital revolution and the digital divide and highlights the enormous variation between and within countries in terms of digital access, and the gaps between rich and poor, male and female, urban and rural.  The report cautions that excluding girls from the digital revolution will have consequences on their growth and development. For additional global ICT statistics (1998-2009) see this post at ICT4D blog. Another resource on mobiles and women is the Cherie Blair study.

Section Three describes and provides statistics around 7 important reasons that ICTs are important to adolescent girls:

  1. To keep in touch with others and reduce isolation in countries where this is an issue
  2. To further their education and acquire new skills
  3. To take an active part in their communities and countries
  4. In order to have the skills to find work
  5. To build specific skills and knowledge on subjects they might otherwise not know about, such as HIV and AIDS
  6. Because evidence has shown that learning to use these technologies can build self-esteem
  7. In order to keep safe

Section Four goes in depth around ways that adolescent girls compete with adolescent boys for the most use of communications technologies such as mobiles and the Internet, but that often they are using them for different reasons and different purposes. Most of the available research for this chapter is from the ‘North’, yet the studies indicate that girls tend to use ICTs for communication and boys tend toward a focus on the technology itself. Studies on this from the ‘South’ are unavailable to date.

When girls are treated as real partners....

Section Five discusses the barriers that keep adolescent girls from accessing ICTs. In other words, if the importance of ICTs has been established, girls are willing and able and keen to use ICTs, then what prevents them from having equal access to ICTs? Some of the issues that the chapter discusses are those of power and control.

‘I can immediately call the wholesale market to inquire about prices and place direct orders. I am now recognized as a businesswoman, growing and selling sesame seeds, not just as somebody’s wife or sister,’ said a woman in India.

‘You’re a girl – a mobile can cause many problems, and so you don’t need it,’ said the father of a Palestinian girl.

Girls’ access to technology is limited by their societies, communities and families. In patriarchal societies where men control technology, girls and women simply have less access, because ICT’s confer power on the user. Even in educational settings, a study found that boys tend to hog available ICTs. Teachers have distinct expectations from boys vs. girls. Girls also don’t tend to go into the field of ICTs or want to have ICT careers, since the field is typically a male field. ‘Technology appears to be marketed by men for men. It’s time we started switching bright and talented girls on to science and technology,’ comments a British government official.

Women and girls in developing countries however are not receiving the basic education and training that they need to be ready technology adopters. They are seen as users and receivers of technology, not as innovators involved in technology design and development. Once they are computer literate, however, many young women see the computer industry as a route to independence. The report offers statistics on the numbers of young women in countries like South Africa, India, Malaysia and Brazil who are working in the ICT related industries and professions.

What stops girls from using technology?

There are seven key factors that prevent girls from taking advantage of technology:

  1. Discrimination – girls are still viewed as second-class citizens in many societies.
  2. Numbers – boys both outnumber girls and tend to dominate access to computers.
  3. Confidence – because they don’t have equal access at school, girls may be less confident than boys when it comes to going into IT jobs because they don’t feel they have the same skills and knowledge as the young men competing for the jobs.
  4. Language – in order to use these technologies, English is usually a requirement, and for girls with only basic literacy in their own language, this is a major barrier.
  5. Time – girls’ domestic roles, even at a young age, mean they have less free time than boys to explore and experiment with new technologies.
  6. Money – girls are less likely than their brothers to have the financial resources to pay for, say, a mobile phone and its running costs, or access to the web in an internet café.
  7. Freedom – boys are also more likely to be allowed to use internet cafés because parents are concerned about their daughters going out on their own.

Section Six digs into the dark side of cyberspace and the risks that adolescent are exposed to at a time of their lives when they are beginning to develop sexually. One in 5 women report having been sexually abused before the age of 15, according to the authors. The Internet by and large is simply a new medium for old kinds of bad behavior, however; and new technologies simply extend the possibility of abuse to new arenas. Girls who are not even using the Internet are still vulnerable, given that a photo of them can be taken and posted by someone else even if they have no computer access. Cyberbullying and cyberharrassment are other risks that girls face.

Many young people and youth organizations are active in facing these risks and protecting themselves, and various campaigns exist to help adolescent girls be more aware of how to protect themselves while using ICTs. New technology can itself also be a tool to help with counter-trafficking efforts. The chapter outlines some of the different efforts being made to protect girls online, and emphasizes the role of parents and schools in discussing on-line use and being supportive as girls begin exploring cyberspace.

There is a quite broad set of recommendations for a wide array of actors at the end of Chapter 4 that could be taken up, contextualized and fleshed out by different parties or stakeholders into specific calls to action:

Brazilian girls in a digital world. As an annex to Chapter 4 on ICTs, new research with 49 boys and 44 girls, aged 10-14 examines adolescent girls’ rights and protection in Brazil within the context of ICTs. ICT use is growing exponentially in Brazil, particularly among 15-17 year olds, where between 2005 and 2008, ICT usage went from 33.7 to 62.9 percent. The study covers use pattern, links between on-line and off-line behavior, and on-line safety.

Conclusions. The report concludes by calling for greater knowledge about ICT-related sexual exploitation and violence against girls, more emphasis on prevention and stronger international standards. It also points out that girls need to be empowered to use new communications technologies safely, on their own terms, and in ways that promote their development and build their futures.

Call to action for September 22: As part of the launch of the Because I am a Girl Report, Plan is calling for International Day of the Girl to be established on September 22. You can sign the petition here.

Resources

Download the full report here: Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape

Download the Girl’s Cohort Study: Real Choices, Real Lives. Plan researchers follow 142 girls lives over a 9-year period.

Download past Because I am a Girl Reports (since 2007)

Related posts on Wait… What?

On girls and ICTs

Revisiting the topic of girls and ICTS: Tech Salon Discussions

Being a girl in Cumbana

MDGs through a child rights lens

3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs


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We’ve been thinking and discussing the best way to follow up on the Social Media for Social Change workshop that we had in December in Kenya. Ideas have been going back and forth about the best way to really find out what the Information and Communication needs are in the countries where we are working, and then how to support the different offices and staff to find the best and most appropriate Technology solutions.

We ended up with a chicken and egg situation in a way…. if ICT4D is not your top priority, and you don’t spend your life trying to figure out what is happening with ICT4D, you may not know what all is out there. (Ha, even if you do spend your life doing it, you don’t know what all is out there). So it can be hard to imagine tools and solutions if you’ve not seen them in action, used them yourself, or heard about how others are using them. At the same time, each local situation is different, so one size doesn’t fit all, so in order to find a tool or a solution, the situation analysis must come from those who would use that ‘solution.’ So what do you do first — learn about different tools and potential solutions so that the lightbulb goes off on ways to incorporate/adapt the existing tools to your needs, or discuss your ‘needs’ and design something that works — sometimes re-inventing the wheel. We thought that the best way we could manage the situation was to try to do both at once.

What we want to do is to activate our knowledge and study more about the concrete information and communications needs at the community level as well as in Plan’s program work that could be supported by ICTs. So we are hoping that we can produce a document which offers specific recommendations about utilizing ICTs in our work in the participating countries in Africa. And we then hope that we can identify areas to be developed further including successful initiatives currently being implemented by Plan itself and also those areas where we can build on existing synergy with governmental strategies. We are also hoping to better understand the capacity building needs among Plan and its partners.

It should be interesting research/training and hopefully will take us one step further towards incorporating appropriate technology to improve our communications and management of information so that we can have greater impact in our existing programs or even develop new programs that we didn’t think were possible before….

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