At the Technology Salon hosted by the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership with Vodafone Foundation on Jan 28, 2010, some folks from the DC area (and beyond) will gather to share experiences around girls and ICTs.
This conversation is an important one, given that gaps exist around discussion, practice and research. The information and ideas shared at the Technology Salon will feed into the contents of the Girls and ICTs chapter for Plan’s upcoming 2010 “Because I am a Girl” Report (currently in the works).
There are a few points that I hope will be considered in the Technology Salon discussion:
Tension between participation and protection.
There are many examples of ICTs being used for increased participation and connection: mobile phones for citizen journalism; Twitter revolution in Iran; girls using mobiles to ask questions about sexuality and to get information to help them improve their sexual and reproductive health; girls married off early or those living in protective societies using mobile phones to maintain contact with friends; new media tools opening up possibilities for youth engagement in important conversations that normally they would be shut out of.
However, due to the very real problems of on-line child pornography, child trafficking, child harassment, and cyber bullying, there is also a strong push for more control, more restrictions on on-line use in the name of protecting children. The tension between child participation and child protection is a very real one.
As we look at how technology and international development communities can support girls’ development, I hope it’s kept in mind that the more knowledge that girls have about the internet and ICTs in general, the more practical use they are allowed, the more coaching to help them understand implications of their actions, then the better prepared they will be to navigate these realms and to keep themselves safe. Increasing their knowledge, abilities and desire to protect themselves may be more effective than setting strict external limitations.
Actively engaging girls in this as part of an educational process can be better than restricting their use – and being open to young people’s own ideas and ways of using ICTs is critical. Adult involvement in this area is important, but it is probably more worthwhile to coach than to control. Good communication and trust between children, youth and their adult mentors and guides is critical in this process. (Excellent resources on Child Online Protection (COP) for children, youth, educators and parents came out on October 2009 and are well worth the read.)
Online behavior mirrors offline behavior.
I remember getting an obscene phone call when I was around 8 years old. My mother did not blame the telephone, however. She blamed the pervert that was calling. She made sure to teach me how to be prepared in case it happened again. She emphasized not giving out information on the phone and hanging up immediately if I felt uncomfortable or didn’t know who was calling. She did not prohibit me from ever touching the phone again or blame me, but she was vigilant for awhile.
In the same way, new ICTs themselves cannot be blamed for negative and twisted behaviors. ICTs are tools that exacerbate and extend already existing human behaviors, and the blame lies with those who are using ICTs for child trafficking, cyber bullying and the other evils associated with the internet. It’s important to address underlying behaviors. Research shows that kids who are bullied offline are often also bullied online. Girls who are vulnerable offline are likely also vulnerable online. Online is a manifestation of offline, and the root causes of girls’ vulnerabilities online cannot be blamed only on the ICT tools themselves.
I have my own daughter now, and have discussed with her many times how to keep herself safe online and on the phone. It’s important for her to know this before something happens, not during or after. She will probably be using the internet and the phone for the rest of her life, so prohibiting them is not an option, and the benefits of using these tools obviously outweigh the risks. My own involvement and use of social networking sites, texting, etc. is an excellent way for me to know how these sites are used and what security holes there are for my children on the sites. How can parents and teachers in areas with limited use of ICTs be involved and engaged to serve as coaches and leaders in on-line protection together with children? How can communities help identify existing vulnerabilities in girls (or young people in general) that might manifest themselves online and offer support to prevent exploitation?
Digital gender divide.
There are some amazing examples of ICTs helping women and girls to improve their livelihoods; for example, women selling mobile telephone services; birth attendance being improved by using mobile phones to connect women to midwives, ambulances and other medical services; educational content being expanded using internet; youth media and youth radio programs bringing girls voices and gender topics into the mix for community discussion and dialogue.
However, in places where boys and men dominate women and girls, boys and men likely also dominate the use of available ICTs. Men may control the family’s mobile phone and take it with them, or monitor women’s calls. In places where boys are more favored, their confidence to try new things is higher meaning they may rush in to use mobiles, cameras, radio equipment in projects while girls shy back. In some cases girls report that boys hog and monopolize the computers and equipment, and access is denied. I’ve seen boys criticize, scorn and ridicule girls who are using equipment for the first time, and girls become too timid to try again. In many developing countries, just getting girls to attend school is difficult. If girls are assumed to be less intelligent or less worthy than boys, and their secondary school attendance (where ICT training might be offered) is not a priority, girls will have a very difficult time ever accessing and using ICTs.
Underlying issues surrounding girls’ participation in general need to be addressed. We need to think about how ICTs can be used to help girls’ inclusion, participation and self esteem increase in general.
Girls involvement in developing and designing ICT solutions for their own needs.
Studies in several countries have shown that girls and boys use technology in different ways and for different things. What specific ICT needs do underprivileged girls in ‘developing’ countries have? Is anyone asking? What processes or solutions already exist that take girls’ ICT needs into account? What environments are necessary for girls to engage in defining, deciding and creating ICT solutions? Where are they already engaging, and how can communities, schools, organizations and businesses support and recreate those environments? How can processes and products be designed together with girls?
Tech is still a field heavily dominated by males. In the US, for example, some women in tech have pulled together to question this and to advocate for more opportunities for women to break into the male dominated worlds of publication owners, conference speakers, businesses, well known innovators, and “best of” lists. There have been protests against prominent companies for promoting “Booth Babes” and in one case last year, strippers, at tech conferences. This brings the question – in places without female tech role models and respectful environments, how can girls see themselves as leaders in this field?
Specific research on girls and ICTs.
There is not a lot of information on the impact of ICTs on the lives of girls in ‘developing’ countries, especially studies that go beyond establishment of computer centers. There is anecdotal evidence of positive impact of mobile phones on women. There are studies on the digital gender divide for women; on child trafficking and other negative aspects of the internet; and on use of internet and technology among youth in the US, UK, Australia, etc. It’s been difficult to find a lot of information on the use of ICTs by girls in the “South.” It would be interesting for more research to be done on girls and ICTs in the “South” and for some good practices to be shared. Hopefully someone at the Technology Salon will be able to share some insight on this.
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