One of the great panels at last week’s Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference was on technology and youth economic opportunities. (See my previous posts on seeing youth as assets and barriers girls face to economic opportunities, and my next post on soft skills and enabling environments).
In addition to the specific panel, I paid special attention throughout the conference for any mention of technology, and I asked some questions in panels that were not related to technology to see if people thought technology was an enabler for adolescent girls or if my perception is biased because it’s my area of focus.
What I heard is that in regard to girls and technology, there are large gaps as well as areas where technology can serve as a bridge for girls to achieve economic opportunities. As Wayan Vota from Inveneo noted, globally, women are 20% less likely to have a mobile phone than men and in Asia, that number rises to 37%. How can we address the ‘girl gap’ especially in terms of the poor and disadvantaged 10% of adolescent girls who are the most marginalized of all? How can we help bring economic opportunities to this group?
Girl-focused programs. In terms of helping girls feel more comfortable accessing and learning about technology, Peter Broffman from Intel brought up the importance of safe spaces. Intel’s Learn program creates spaces that are ‘girls only, where they are not competing with boys,’ he said. ‘It takes a concerted effort to construct comfortable environments where girls can explore technology.’ We have special days for girls and girls only projects. Girls tend to be more comfortable creating and using technology in that kind of environment,’ he said. Vota agreed, saying that one simple way of making spaces more amenable to girls is by having all the computer screens in a computer lab or cafe facing the public, so that it’s easy to monitor what is being done on them (eg., so that accessing ‘adult’ content is impossible to hide). Katherine Lucey from Solar Sister, in a separate panel, also referred to the need for programs that are specifically designed for girls and women. She described a microfinance program operating in one of the same communities as Solar Sister where 90% of the participants are male. ‘Solar Sister is a program aimed at women because the existing programs are biased towards men.’
Girls and women in rural areas. David Mukaru from Kenya’s Equity Bank said that the bank reaches more women and girls simply because the majority of rural population in Kenya is made up of women. Many men have migrated to urban areas. ‘Through the financial education which the bank embarked on 3 years ago, we addressed technology fears. We were able to train the women, create awareness on bank services, train them how to use technology, how to interact with bank officials. We also introduced technology to the rural agency. The agency uses a mobile. The agency in the rural area is the normal shop keeper and he has become an agent of training and penetrating in the rural areas. This guy is in the rural shop and he trains the woman how to use these technologies to do banking.’
Mobility. Mobile tech can really be the great leveler, according to Jacob Korenblum from Souktel. It can really help to close gender gap. ‘Many of the young women who use our services come from traditional families that would not allow them to go door to door to find employment. They are not allowed to go around town to find job opportunities. So their ability to find jobs is limited. But since many young women have mobile phones, within the household, as a young woman via Souktel you can start looking for work and even secure a job interview from home. Your family is comfortable with how you are doing this but you are still asserting yourself, you are taking that step to get a job.’
Another program that Souktel offers is support for women entrepreneurs via mobile phone groups. ‘Through a closed mobile phone peer network, women can ask questions to each other. In Iraq for example, women cannot travel, but they want to consult with other women on a business they are starting – they can send a question out to peers who can respond with advice. It’s like a list-serve via mobile phone. For female business owners, being able to consult peers via mobile is tremendous. It’s safe for them, it’s empowering. Our studies have shown this. We’ve been able to help women play catch up and access the same resources that men have, just through a different channel.’
Access is not enough. Raquel Barros from Lua Nova, a program that trains marginalized girls in Brasil to do construction work, said that in Brazil mobile phones are very expensive and they are a high status asset for the girls she works with. But ‘access is not sufficient for the phone to be used for something good or useful,’ she said. ‘It’s important to access the mobile phone but also important to do more education about how you can use the mobile phone. All our girls have Orkut but they don’t know their email. They have computers that they can use and we started to take some photos and that kind of thing, but the girls don’t always access and use mobiles and Internet in a good way. Access and education are both important.’ [Plan did some interesting research on girls use of technology in Brazil that confirms this also – see the Annex to Chapter 4.]
Technology as an economic enabler. Technology is everywhere according to Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan, a trust that works with low-caste girls in India, “In Gujarat we have maximum mobile owners. The mobile is a status symbol, yes. In a family you can have 3-4 people owning a phone. And it does mean a lot when young women have mobiles, you can do your marketing, you have access to people, people can reach you on your mobile, you can put it on your shop board so people can reach you on mobile.’ In addition, computer training can allow girls to replicate and train others on computer skills. ‘A lot of girls have done computers; they are running classes for the children because children are not taught computers in schools. So the girls can teach this.’ However, as David Mukaru from Equity Bank in Kenya had noted earlier during the technology panel, ‘the challenge is access to a power supply.’ Not to mention other infrastructure. ‘When we work with the tribal populations, they have no access to transport, so how can you ever get a computer repaired?’ Some young people who Pradeep works with have started their own studios. ‘They start by buying a camera — it’s not cheap but they save and buy it. We have a lot of wedding ceremonies and rituals that happen that people can do a lot of video projects.’
Wearing pants. But as Pradeep said, technology can also bring about other personal changes. ‘Ultimately, your entire outlook changes with tech. Women with computers or cameras tend to wear trousers and shirts. I’ve seen women — if you get married you only have to wear saris, you can’t get out of a sari, you struggle with that identity — but these women are wearing trousers and using a camera. Sometimes they even cut their hair! Even just using a camera or cell phone, you will see women changing. Technology really changes their role. To bring change, mobilizing the community is important but technology itself can also change the role of women.”