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As part of the work I’m doing with the mEducation Alliance around mobile technologies and youth workforce development (mYWD), we’re putting together an event focused on innovation in the mYWD space on October 15  from 9-12.30 EDT.

Some of the topics we’ll be looking at include:

  • How do workforce development programs address different forms of exclusion? And how do different forms of exclusion affect approaches to youth and workforce development programming?
  • What do innovation and ‘disruption’ mean in the context of mobile technologies and youth workforce development?  What are some different frameworks for thinking about innovation?
  • What role might mobile technologies play in increasing access to information and work/entrepreneurial opportunities for young people?
  • Where are there opportunities for innovation with mobile technologies in YWD? What are some examples? What are some precautions?
  • What can mYWD learn from other areas/sectors? What can be adapted and built upon?

Philip Auerswald (The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy and the Innovations: Technology, Globalization, Governance Journal), Nick Martin (Tech Change), John Zoltner (FHI360), and a host of development and technology practitioners working in mobiles and youth workforce development (mYWD) and related fields will be joining.

From the event preparation research and the discussions, we’ll assemble a short publication to share, and (if all goes well!) we’ll do some short videos exploring what innovation means to different people working in this space.

If you’d like to join the meeting, RSVP now by emailing Matthew French at MFrench [at] jbsinternational [dot] com. In person space is limited, so hurry! The event will take place at FHI 360 Conference Center, 1825 Connecticut Avenue NW 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20009 (Map)

If you are not able to participate in person, contact Matthew by October 11 for details on joining the session online.

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September’s mEducation Alliance Symposium included a special track around mobile technologies for youth workforce development (mYWD) as well as a session to discuss a new mYWD Working Group,  which is now up and running online. (Join by first registering at the mEducation Alliance website, then clicking here to join the mYWD Working Group.)

If the topic of mobile technologies and youth workforce development is of interest, don’t miss the October 15th event Innovations in Mobiles for Youth Workforce Development.  Among others, we’ll have the brilliant Phil Auerswald (@auerswald) helping us frame what we mean by ‘innovation’ in the mYWD space. RSVP info here.

In the meantime, here are some highlights from the mYWD sessions at Symposium:

Session 1: Mobiles for Youth Workforce Development (mYWD): Taking Stock of mYWD started with a presentation on the GSMA’s ‘Shaping the Future report by Lauren Dawes.  Then we heard from Theo Van Rensburg Lindzter (M-UBUNTU) and Thabang Mogale (Millenials as Mobile Educators).

  • The GSMA report found that education was a key priority in the lives of the young people surveyed, preceded only by family and health. Respondents also prioritized a good career and noted that they need to improve their skills to find better work. Only 25% of the young people surveyed listed the classroom as their primary source of education. Word of mouth was their main source of information on employment. The single largest barrier to educational information noted was lack of funds; meaning services need to be affordable if aiming to reach the majority of young people. Mobiles are an important asset for young people, ranking above clothing and shoes. Voice is a favored service among youth; most do not use their mobiles to access data. Key recommendations for mLearning and informal education include that youth are enthusiastic about the possibility and potential of learning and improving their chances of finding meaningful work via their mobiles. Linking mLearning to existing activities and behaviors will bring better results. Targeting the whole family is important as youth may not always be owners of mobiles, and parental gate-keepers may not see value in a handset. The youth surveyed expressed willingness to receive advertising in return for access to content and services.
  • The Millennials as Mobile Education Providers project takes place in South Africa. The pilot project grew out of a partnership between Durban University of Technology (S Africa), the M-Ubuntu Project (Sweden, S Africa, US), Sprint Re:Cycle (US), and six rural and township schools in S Africa. A key part of the program is working to shift attitudes from “youth as a problem” to “youth as untapped resources who can engage, lead and contribute to training initiatives.” The project includes subsidized internships for unemployed or out of school youth that tie vocational skills training to related community service; service learning as a credit-bearing component of university degree programs; in school service learning opportunities for secondary school students; service that meets an identified community need and upfront training accompanied by ongoing support and mentorship. The program utilizes recycled devices as platforms for curriculum-aligned educational content. University students serve as literacy/numeracy coaches for students in under-performing rural and township high schools, especially students who are preparing for graduation exams, and where there is typically a very low rate of passing. Young people like Thabang serve as mobile tech apprentices at schools, handing device charging, repair and content transfer for teachers. Thabang has found incredible personal success through the program, finding a useful skill. He emphasized the numerous global connections made through the program which have motivated him to keep working and striving to be his best.

Session 2 was Connections and Content for Out of School Youth, facilitated by Kimberley Kerr from the MasterCard Foundation. It featured Scott Isbrandt from Education Development Center talking about PAJE-Nieta and the Stepping Stone mobile content authoring platform (video) and Jonathan McKay from Praekelt Foundation talking about: the Ummeli job portal.

  • PAJE-Nieta is aimed at increasing literacy and entrepreneurship skills among 14-25 year olds in small rural villages with few services. The hope is that by increasing those skills, the youth can access market information systems which can then lead to enhanced livelihoods. Scott noted that local youth may produce, but they run into difficulties when it comes to knowing where to sell. There is a database of information available, but it is not accessible unless a person is literate. The challenge is taking the wealth of what has been done with ICTs to places with no electricity and no connectivity, and making it affordable and accessible. EDC determined which handsets were widely available, cheapest, run on Java, could run simple multimedia,had a speaker, and were within the purchasing power range of youth. Then they built Stepping Stone for this model so that teachers could create and push out local content. Stepping Stone includes digital text books, learning assessments, direct feedback capability and an interactive audio that is pre-loaded onto phones. A concern is what happens when the grant is over, so EDC is looking at ways to work with kiosks, pre-loading content on micro SD cards, and thinking about membership fees as something that would enable people to continue to load additional content. Stepping Stone will be released as an open source platform so that others can use it.
  • Ummeli is a mobile platform created because youth who participate in Praekelt’s Young Africa Live initiative expressed that finding meaningful work was a higher priority even than HIV prevention.  Praekelt worked with Vodacom to ensure that there would be no cost, because youth, in marginalized and/or rural communities normally cannot cover data charges. Ummeli has a CV builder that youth can fill out and fax to a potential employer for free. They can also fill out surveys that gain them points that they can use to cover the cost of faxes. Ummeli was designed specifically for mobile and as a community rather than as an individual tool. It is the first purely mobile job platform in South Africa. Rather than only listing job opportunities, Ummeli enables users to create their own opportunities and has extensive supplemental support such as career advice, life skills and peer networking. Youth can geocode or do other small microtasks to earn points that they can use in the Ummeli system. Rather than only looking at ‘finding employment’, Ummeli is set up to help youth find ‘meaningful work.’ This can be in their communities, volunteering or interning, all of which give youth experience, help them make contacts, and help them build their resumes. Ummeli hopes to turn depression into action by positioning youth’s free time as an asset that can be used for positive things like helping their communities. Ummeli is looking at taking existing course work and enhancing it for low-end handsets; they are looking at how to get around the verification and accreditation issue so that these opportunities will be seen as credible. Ummeli currently has 87,000 unique users.

Session 3 was facilitated by Suzanne Philion (U.S. Dept. of State) and looked at mYWD: Mobiles for Youth Skills Development. Speakers were Michael Carrier (British Council) on “Using mobile devices to strengthen educational systems, specifically in English for Basic Education and supporting workforce readiness;” Bhanu Potta from Nokia on “Nokia Life Education services – mLearning at scale of millions;” and Shayan Mashatian from Appexiom – Petanque, with A demonstration of a mobile learning pilot and findings from its implementation.

  • The British Council’s Learn English Apps focus on applications that can help youth to learn English via mobile to increase their chances to obtain employment.  One point that Michael brought up was that people can use their short bits of downtime to learn English on their phone rather than go on a cigarette break or check their Facebook. The Council’s programs are available on different devices from iPhone, Nokia, Samsung, Ovi and the Android OS. Apps include podcasts, a soap opera, pronunciation exercises and games to improve grammar and vocabulary
  • Nokia Life provides education, youth empowerment and lifelong learning; health, agriculture and entertainment services. Nokia has developed software that makes a very cheap mobile look more like a data-enabled phone because, as Bhanu noted, all levels of consumers wish to have a data-like experience. This includes a dynamic home screen with a rotating menu for high discoverability, integration with voices services, a dynamic inbox that highlights new content, and new content channels that can be added using just SMS. Social elements available include ‘ask an expert’, share, and ‘respond to polls’. Nokia Life is currently available in India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria and some additional countries in Middle East and Africa. Nokia Life will provide curated content rather than offer access to all the information available on the Internet via Google. Nokia Browser, a cloud based service will make this information easier to access by compressing the information by 85% making it 3 times faster to download and much cheaper for people to access.
  • Appexiom-Petanque allows for educational content creation via a simple set-up where creators can drop in content, making it easy to publish. This helps overcome some of the current failures of distance learning and addresses the need to see learning differently. Rather than try to put textbooks onto a phone, Sayan commented, m-Learning needs to be re-organized, re-formatted and re-engineered for the mobile phone. It needs to focus on the user experience and provide interactive content, allowing people to choose, multi-task and integrate social media.

Session 4. The final mYWD session shared some initial findings from the mYWD Landscape Study (in process) and looked at setting the foundations of the mYWD Working Group, brainstorming some priorities and topics for the group to tackle, and discussing what makes for a successful community of practice or working group. From this session came the idea for the October 15 Learning Series event on Innovations in mYWD. If you’d like to attend, either let me know or RSVP directly to MFrench at JBSInternational dot com.

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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!

—-

*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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‘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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I went to a great meeting hosted by NetHope and Plan International in Cairo, Egypt during the last week of February. The idea was to get several of the NetHope partners together — both IT companies and INGOs — to discuss ways of working together in the area of ICTs and Education.

I took advantage of the meeting to make some more “Reality Videos”, similar to the mHealth Reality Videos that James Bon Tempo and I did during the mHealth Summit.

1) My Finnish colleague Mika Valitalo asks ‘Really, what’s all the fuss? We just got some equipment and dropped it off in the community and it all worked fine….’

2) Nzila shares what was learned at the workshop and focuses on Grapho Game, a tool to improve literacy in local language.

3) Marcha Neeling says throwing devices at people will not solve any development issues.

4) Mohamed Hussein talks about how ICT4D needs to be led by programs and supported by ICT staff, not the other way around.

5) Maria Berenguer notes that teachers need computer training first if they are to use computers with their students.

6) Chris Bane reminds us that we don’t always need super sophisticated tools. Sometimes very simple ICTs can make all the difference.

7) Edison Nsubega explains that it’s important to base your selection of ICT tools and platforms on the local context and situation that you are trying to resolve.

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As you may have read in my previous posts, I participated in Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference from September 7-9. Some of the most interesting points for me were the emphases on seeing youth as assets, specialized and focused efforts with girls, and the gaps and bridges that technology can create and span for girls.

A last point I want to bring up is the need for ‘soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’ in addition to the specific ‘hard skills’ like vocational training, specific job skills, computer training, etc. The importance of ‘soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’ was  mentioned in pretty much every session that I attended.

Soft skills. It seems obvious, but in addition to knowing how to cut hair, fix a car, run a small business, develop computer software, repair mobile phones, do construction, or work at a store, an office, a factory or whatever, young people need to learn ‘soft skills.’  Soft skills include good attitudes towards work and learning, good interpersonal relationships, self-esteem and confidence, decision-making and all kinds of skills that don’t only help youth succeed at generating income, but that help them negotiate a variety of situations in their lives. Sometimes these are called ‘life skills’, and they are critical elements of holistic youth focused programs.

Most youth development approach programs, whether aimed at economic empowerment or striving for other goals, are about helping youth strengthen these types of skills. At the personal level, most of the work I’ve been involved in over the past several years is along these lines, but via the use of technology, arts and media and involvement in youth-led advocacy or youth-led community development activities. The results are similar however —  youth learn to have self-confidence and they feel valued, they have a sense of group belonging and safety, they learn to speak in public, interact confidently with each other and with adults, they find a space where they can say what they think without being shy, boys and girls learn to work together and better understand each other, and youth learn to negotiate and broker with those who have power. Combined with financial literacy, specific job training and skills related to work and business, these skills are what make young people more successful when trying to earn a living, whether it’s in the formal or informal sector. They also help youth to navigate and overcome some of the challenges and barriers that they encounter. In addition, having trusted adult mentors who they can turn to for support can help ease their way.

Enabling environment. Youth can learn all the soft skills and vocations they want, but if the environment that surrounds them is not conducive to their well-being, if adults do not respect and value them, if there are no broader supportive systems and opportunities for youth to link into, they will be primed for success, but they may not reach it, and this can lead to frustration and apathy. For this reason, the ‘enabling environment’ is a critical piece of these programs.

Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan Trust talked about the variety of skills and aspects that they focus on with adolescent girls and young women, and their communities, including:

  • Sense of self
  • Identity
  • Solidarity
  • Sense of place
  • Finding self and others who can be supportive
  • Changing and bringing women up to another level in the family and the community
  • Vocational skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Focus on rights and protection
  • Support and acknowledgment to the other elements of their lives
Youth Build and Catholic Relief Services shared their short document called Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods, which gives a clear set of promising practices for working with gang-involved youth. Each organization present at Making Cents had its own way of looking at or describing soft skills and enabling environments, but every successful program approach seemed to emphasize the need for both.

The development of soft skills goes hand in hand with seeing youth as assets and people in their own right, and with understanding that mere vocational training, or simply owning a mobile phone will not be enough for many adolescents and young people to achieve success. The focus on enabling environments shows an awareness that the context in which young people grow up is complex and needs to be seen as such, and that all levels and sectors need to be working together to support healthy, thriving and successful young people — from the individual youth, to the family, community, district, national and global levels, and from the cultural to the educational to private enterprise and government and religious and civil society.

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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.”

Interesting indeed!

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