Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

Learning to use a computer in Inhambane, Mozambique

Learning to use a computer in Inhambane, Mozambique

This is a slightly longer version of my Empowering Girls through Information, Communication and Technology, published in The Guardian’s Development Professional’s Network. A full article called “Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?” was published in Redress, the Journal of the Association of Women Educators (Vol 21, No. 2, August 2012, pp 23-29.)

“Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?”

This is the type of taunt a girl might hear when trying to sit in front of one of the computers at the school’s lab, said Fabiola, a young woman from Cameroon while speaking on a panel about girls, education, and new technologies at the 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Fabiola was invited to the CSW to speak about her personal experiences as a girl studying a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Fabiola went on to share how her parents had been instrumental in encouraging her to pursue her studies, even though she was one of few girls who decided to go down the STEM path.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be quite aware that there has been an increasing emphasis in the development sector on girls and ICTs over the past few years. Everyone from large government donors to NGOs to the private sector is banking on girls and technologies, especially mobile phones, to play a big role in helping resolve poverty and make development gains.

Girls themselves consider ICTs to be a major element in their personal growth and development, useful for improving studies, staying informed and earning a living. Girls say that ICTs help them reduce their sense of isolation, acquire new skills, actively participate in national and global dialogues, learn about taboo subjects (such as reproductive health and HIV), feel safer and more in touch with family and friends, and strengthen self-esteem. They often credit participatory media and technology programs with helping them improve their ability to express themselves, speak in public, and to dialogue with adults and other decision makers to negotiate their needs and rights.

But what about access?

The flip side is that for many girls, access to and use of ICTs is a huge challenge. Gender discrimination, lack of confidence, not speaking a major language, low literacy, lack of time and money, and restricted mobility (due to cultural factors or safety) often prevent girls from taking advantage of the benefits of ICTs.

Despite the positive trend in mobile phone and Internet access worldwide, access is often characterized in terms of broad economics, eg., ‘developing’ vs ‘developed’ countries, or it is analyzed at the country level: eg., Kenya vs Mozambique. Analysis needs to go much deeper, however, to include individual factors like class and wealth status, gender, geographic location, age, disability, literacy, language, and device ownership.

Girls living in the same geographic area may have very different levels of access. An English-speaking Kenyan girl living in an urban high rise with her upper class parents will have more access to ICTs than a non-English speaking Kenyan girl with low literacy levels who works long hours cleaning that same apartment and lives in a slum area nearby. The mobile phone ownership capacity of the daughter of a relatively wealthy community leader who owns a small local business will be greater than that of the daughter of one of the poorest families in the same village.

Gender discrimination also comes into play, and in places where men and boys dominate women and girls, they also tend to dominate the available ICTs.  In places where boys are more favored, their confidence to try new things will tend to be higher. Girls often report that boys hog and monopolize ICT equipment and that they criticize, scorn and ridicule girls who are using equipment for the first time, making girls feel too timid to try again.

How can development agencies help girls overcome these barriers?

1)   Keep working to address underlying causes

If girls and women continue to live in greater poverty, with lower education levels, less access to healthcare and other services, less opportunity to work, and lower status in their societies, chances are that their access to and use of ICTs will not level out to that of boys and men.

Getting more girls into school and improving the quality of education could help more girls access and learn to use ICTs. Finding ways to encourage critical thinking and innovation within the education system and ways for girls to join in extra-curricular activities to stimulate new ways of thinking might also help more girls to build the skills and mindsets necessary to enter into the growing number of jobs in the ICT sector.

Advocating for and supporting policies that make Internet more accessible and affordable overall is another area where INGOs can play a role. Libraries and other safe spaces can also help girls and women feel more comfortable and able to access information and learn how to use ICTs.

2) Help change mentalities

A shift in thinking is needed in order to stimulate behavior change that is more conducive to girls participating fully in their family and communities as well as at broader levels. Girls need to be seen as people who can and should take advantage of the potential of ICTs, but they cannot create this shift in thinking on their own. Broad and deep legal, attitudinal and behavior changes need to happen in families, communities, institutions and society in general.

Organizations should engage men and boys as allies in this process. When fathers and male peers are aware, engaged and supportive of girls’ development and girls’ rights, they play a very strong role in changing broader norms and perceptions.

Female role models can also help change mentalities. Having a device or new technology in their possession can increase the status and strength of girls and women as role models and enable them to carry out different and important roles in the community.

3) Offer opportunities

In the short-term, offering specific and accompanied support and opportunities for girls to access and take advantage of ICTs can help fill some of the gaps mentioned above. ICTs can be incredible tools for engaging students in the classroom, making teaching methodologies more participatory, encouraging student-led research and building critical media and digital literacy skills in the process. In places where textbooks are old and outdated, the Internet can offer ways to connect with current events and up-to-date research.

Adding gadgets to the classroom experience involves more than just having the latest digital devices; however, and careful thought needs to be given to the teaching goals, desired outcomes, and issues like relevance and sustainability before deciding on tools and devices.

Special care needs to be taken to ensure that in these controlled spaces, girls have equal access to equipment. Where ICTs cannot be integrated into the classroom or where girls are not in school, non-formal education and extra-curricular activities can give girls a chance to interact with ICTs.

ICTs do hold much promise, yet access for girls remains a challenge. The NGO sector can play a role by addressing underlying causes of gender discrimination and gendered poverty, helping change mentalities, and supporting greater opportunities for girls. For more on ways that INGOs and educators can support girls access and effective use of ICTs, see “Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you’ll be holding a baby’s napkin?”

Read Full Post »

Everybody loves memes and those who work in or care about international development are no exception. One meme that popped up early 2010, is the oft-quoted “there are more mobile phones than toilets.” Apparently, the origin of the phrase was the India census. Subsequently, the statistic was used to raise a point about water and sanitation in India by a UN institute. It was picked up in a New York Times article and became generalized to “more people have [access to] mobile phones than toilets” and “there are more mobile phones than toilets” and other variations.

This simple idea has captured the hearts and minds of many development and technology practitioners and theorists the world over. The phrase has become a staple illustration for those who are looking at the potential of mobiles to change the world. But there is more to it than simple ‘access.’ We need to think beyond access.

What is missed in this meme’s beautiful simplicity is that the mobile access/mobile phones referred to are not necessarily equally distributed. A recent blog post by Marc Bellemare refers to a study he worked on (with Ken Lee) called “Look Who’s Talking: The Impacts of the Intrahousehold Allocation of Mobile Phones on Agricultural Prices.”

“…mobile phones do not seem to be the household public good many development practitioners think they are. In other words, policies designed around the distribution of mobile phones to households (rather than individuals) might contain the seed of their own failure if the intrahousehold [use] of technology matters.

Moreover, after a referee asked us to look at whether major household surveys asked about mobile phone ownership at the household or individual level, I was surprised to find that many of those surveys only collect information on the former.

So if there is one thing I would like our article to change, it’s the kind of data that are collected: We should really collect information on individual rather than on household mobile phone ownership.”

The GSMA and Cheri Blair Foundation study on women and mobiles found that women lag behind in mobile phone ownership in many African, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Women are even further behind in terms of access and use of the Internet.

At the practitioner level, assuming women everywhere can access and use mobiles and Internet can make a project run into problems, as described in this quick video.

In some places where women’s literacy and numeracy skills are quite low, projects designed to share or collect information by mobile can run into additional challenges as related below.

Girls themselves in some places note that despite their interest, boys will physically fight them to access available computers or mock girls who want to learn.

The existence of open and available spaces and platforms (whether virtual or physical) doesn’t automatically mean they are  “accessible” to everyone, including in many cases, to women and girls.

As wonderful as the idea of ‘open’ is (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of ‘open’), ‘open’ can still exclude. Even in purposefully open spaces and frameworks like the Open Knowledge Festival, women lag behind in terms of papers submitted for presentation and women speaking on panels. We lag behind slightly less in terms of doing the legwork of organizing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

At the Beyond Access Conference put on by IREX yesterday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion session on Women and ICTs where we got into some of these issues and talked about how libraries can help. The panelists included Thinley Choden from the READ Bhutan project, Danica MacAvoy from Clinton Global Initiative, and Marieme Jamme of Africa Gathering. The session space was filled with engaged and insightful folks who shared their valuable ideas and experiences as well, including:

  • Numbers that showed the big access gap between men and women.
  • Access is not the only measure, however – as the conference notes we need to go “Beyond Access” to look at use, purpose, and many other aspects.
  • Safety is the number one reason that girls and women give for not accessing ICTs.
  • Libraries are often seen as knowledge centers and conceived of as more reputable spaces than Internet cafes for girls and women to frequent.
  • Librarians and community facilitators at library spaces can serve as mediators to help ensure that access to equipment and other materials is equally open to all.
  • Women mentors and role models, eg., female librarians, are an important way to encourage girls and women to spend time at libraries or to be more confident in accessing information and communicating through technology.
  • One of the most important things a library can do is create safe space for girls and women to gather and discuss issues of importance to them.
  • Depending on context, in some places this needs to be a physical space; in others situations, a virtual space can work.
  • Men and boys play a big role in advocating and encouraging girls and women to access information, to communicate, and to come together and participate.
  • If offered space and opportunity, women and girls (and anyone else) can teach themselves to use new technologies.
  • Libraries will be most successful for women and girls if they facilitate access and sharing of information that is relevant and in demand by women and girls, not what outsiders think should be in demand.
  • Low information access is holding back girls and women from advancing in careers such as ICTs and coding, because up-to-date books are not accessible in many places.
  • Supporting people to ‘join the global network’ through uploading information about themselves and their lives can serve as a tool by which community and personal projects can be examined, discussed and shared.
  • What a library is and what one looks like will vary according to context and culture; the key is having a physical or virtual safe space where information and communication can take place.

So even if there are more mobile phones than toilets, the conversation can’t stop there. We still need to talk about access, and we need to go “beyond access” too, as this great gathering yesterday so aptly noted.

Read Full Post »

When working with women and girls in conflict or displacement situations (actually, when working with anyone, in any situation), we often make assumptions. In this case, the assumption is that “economic opportunities for women and adolescent girls have positive roll-on effects”, according to Mendy Marsh, UNICEF’s Gender Based Violence (GBV) Specialist in Emergencies.

Slide from Marsh’s presentation.

We assume that when women and older adolescent girls have income, they are safer. We assume that when households have income, children are more likely to be in school, that they are accessing healthcare, and that they are better fed, says Marsh.

But do we know whether that is true or not? What does the evidence say?

I took an hour today to listen to Marsh along with Dale Buscher, Senior Director for Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), talk about WRC’s “Peril or Protection: Making Work Safe” Campaign (watch the recording here).

GBV happens in all communities, including stable ones. But when situations become unstable, Marsh noted, a number of additional factors combine to make women and adolescent girls in conflict or displacement settings vulnerable to violence.

Slide from Marsh’s presentation.

These factors include:

  • Inadequate legal frameworks –eg., impunity for those committing GBV and a lack of awareness of rights
  • Lack of basic survival needs  — eg., food, non-food items, fuel, water, safe shelter
  • Lack of opportunities – eg., women’s and girls’ financial dependence, potential for exploitative work
  • Sociocultural aspects – eg., harmful practices, domestic violence, early and forced marriage
  • Insecurity – eg., flight and displacement, no lighting, no safe shelter, non-separate latrines or hygiene facilities for men, women, boys and girls, or facilities that don’t lock or are insecure; dependency on males for information

Emphasis during conflict situations tends to focus on response not prevention, said Marsh. Different agencies and sectors often work in isolation, but no single agency or sector can address GBV. It needs to be addressed across all sectors with strong community participation, including that of men and boys.

Often, she noted, livelihoods programs are brought in as a response to women’s needs and based on the assumptions above. There can be unintended negative effects from these programs and we need to be aware of them so that they can be mitigated.

Following Marsh’s introduction, Busher explained that because WRC wanted to better understand any potential unintended consequences from livelihoods programs aimed at women in conflict or displacement situations, in 2009 they conducted research and produced “Peril or Protection: The Link between Livelihoods and Gender-Baed Violence in Displacement Settings.

There is a very weak evidence base in terms of the links between gender based violence and livelihoods programming, he said.

WRC found that in some cases livelihood programs implemented by NGOs actually increased women’s and adolescent girls’ risks of GBV because of factors such as their entering the public sphere, going to market, using unsafe transportation and domestic conflict. The economic opportunities heightened the risks that women and girls faced. Providing them with income generation opportunities did not necessarily make women and girls safer or give them more control over resources.

Slide from Buscher’s presentation.

The answer is not to stop creating economic opportunities, however. Rather it is to design and implement these kinds of programs in responsible ways that do no harm and that are based on in-depth consultations with women, girls and their communities, livelihoods practitioners and GBV specialists.

Based on their research and with input from different stakeholders, WRC designed a toolkit to help those creating livelihoods programs for and with women and adolescent girls to do so in a way that lessens the risk of GBV.

The process outlined in the toolkit includes secondary research, safety mapping, a safety tool, and a decision chart.

Based on the secondary research, practitioners work with adolescent girls, women and the wider community to map the places that are important for livelihoods, explained Buscher. For example, the bus, a taxi stand, a supply shop, the fields.

Community members discuss where women and girls are safe and where they are not. They describe the kinds of violence and abuse that girls and women experience in these different places.

They identify strategies for protection based on when GBV takes place in the different locations. For example, does it happen year-round? At certain times of year? Only at night? Only on weekends?

They identify and discuss the most risky situations. Is a girl or woman most at risk when she is selling by the side of the road? Alone in a shop?

They also discuss which relationships are the most prone to GBV. Bosses? Suppliers? Buyers? Intimate Partners? Together the women and girls share and discuss the strategies that they use to protect themselves.

An additional tool identifies the social safety net that a women or adolescent girl has, considering that social networks are important both for livelihoods as well as for protection. Ways to strengthen them are discussed.

Finally, a decision chart is created with a list of livelihood activities and the information from the previous charts and discussions to determine the levels of risk in the different kinds of livelihood activities and the potential strategies for mitigating GBV.

Decisions are also made by the adolescent girls and women regarding which risks they are willing to take for which levels of livelihoods.

Marsh and Buscher concluded that safe, dignified work may be the most effective form of protection because it can help mitigate negative coping strategies such as transactional sex, child labor, pulling children out of school, and selling rations.

Livelihoods, however, should not be thought of as a little bit of money to supplement daily rations. They should be sustainable and help meet basic needs in an ongoing way; and they should lead to dignified work. The amount earned and the risks involved for women and girls need to be worth it for them, considering all the other domestic chores that they are required to do. NGOs need to consult with and listen to girls and women to better understand their needs, coping strategies.

If you’d like to learn more about the research, and the toolkit, WRC offers a free e-learning tool on how to make work safe.

You can also follow the #safelivelihoods conversation on twitter.

Read Full Post »

‘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

Read Full Post »

The field of Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) tends to be dominated by men. Is this because men are more suited to working in technology? Because women don’t want to? Because boys are more interested from an early age?

Probably not. What is more likely is that there are factors throughout girls’ lives that discourage them from going into this field.

At a personal level, I’ve been lucky enough to work in settings and environments that are largely positive towards women in this field. I’ve met and collaborated with numerous wonderful men who treat me with respect and who have been more than willing to work side-by-side, to help me out, to ask for advice, to share their own experience and information, and to support and promote the work I’m involved in. The fact that I work more on the social side of ICTs rather than the super technical, engineering or ‘coding’ side, however, may have something to do with my positive experiences.

Many women who work on the more ‘techie’ side report feeling discriminated against, and the numbers tell a story that’s worth looking into.

In the US, for example…

When women are shown in the media working in technology, they are often seen as rare, they are patronized or sexualized, and their appearance is noted and commented on. (And don’t even get me started on ‘booth babes’ at for-profit technology conferences.)

As Miriam writes in ‘First Female Engineer Graces the Cover of Wired Magazine‘, ‘I’m glad they’ve featured her here, and I’m glad that she’s not scantily clad like most of the women who grace the covers of national magazines. But when will we get beyond the idea of Rosie the Riveter? When can women across fields just be acknowledged the way their male counterparts are–for their accomplishments? …Posing her like Rosie feels antiquated, and also draws attention only to the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s world–not that she’s an incredible engineer in her own rite [sic].’

It’s the same, or perhaps more pronounced, the world over.

At last year’s Commission on the Status of Women, Fabiola, a 17 year old from Cameroon commented: “when a girl succeeds to sit on a computer lab, a boy will raise his voice on her, saying: ‘Why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will be holding a baby’s napkin?’

In other parts of her talk, Fabiola recognized the important role that her parents played in keeping her in school and encouraging her to study for a career related to the sciences.

This highlights the importance of not only education, but of positive parental and community support and a broader set of changes that allow girls to have more freedom and more opportunities. Girls need to know that they have options open to them. And boys need to know too that girls can ‘do stuff’. Women role models are important, and where there are not yet women in certain careers to serve as role models, positive support from men to encourage girls to explore their options is key.

More girls and women in ICTs is not only an individual opportunity for women to earn an income. It can also mean that ICTs products and tools will be designed with women in mind. And I’m not talking about making things pink and purple to appeal to women, I’m talking about the design that responds to real needs in the real lives of women and girls around the world.

As part of a broader effort to encourage more girls to consider wider options, ‘Girls in ICTs Day‘, was established last year and will now be an annual event on the UN Calendar, to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in April.

Many initiatives are underway already to support girls and women in the ICT sector. More governments recognize the importance and necessity of taking deliberate steps. The ITU’s latest report notes that “The choices made by policymakers, enterprises and individuals on investment in education and training must strive for gender equality—that is, to give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.”

Positive attitudes and support from families, friends, communities, the private sector and the media is also part of the solution to helping girls see their potential.

The Girls in ICT Portal offers statistics and advice on how to encourage more girls to consider ICTs as a career option. 

Read Full Post »

Ann Blackman’s Off to Save the World is a chronicle of the life of Julia Taft. The book showcases how rare it was for women to be involved in high level politics in the 70s and 80s, and how Taft skillfully maneuvered herself in circles that were not open to many women in US Government or international affairs at the time. Taft was clearly a charming, witty, strong and determined woman who endeared herself to most everyone she met.

As the book preface notes “Julia Vadala Taft became one of the country’s top humanitarian relief experts, a friend and ally of the world’s most impoverished people. Starting in 1975, when she directed the Indochina refugee task force, Julia essentially invented the way the United States government responds to natural and man-made disasters around the world, demanding basic rights for those whose lives are turned upside down by civil war, famine, religious persecution, earthquakes, floods and insect infestations.”

I was struck while reading, however, that most of the relief efforts that Taft was involved in sounded an awful lot like operational failures, though they were hailed as diplomacy successes. This gave me much to consider both in terms of political motivations for relief and development efforts, and for observing how far relief work has come since then in terms of understanding the need to be prepared, to take direction from local governments and local populations, to set up proper logistical arrangements, and to maintain neutrality during humanitarian crises. Today, guidelines like the Sphere Handbook and the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct help orient aid workers and give them support and guidance during humanitarian relief operations.

My favorite anecdote in the book was that following the December 7, 1988 Armenian earthquake “Bush [Senior] told Julia that his son and grandson would like to go to Armenia to hand out Christmas presents. [Taft] stifled a laugh: “I thought to myself ‘for God’s sake, this is not a good idea.’ But all I said was, ‘When would you go?'” “The 24th of December,” Bush replied. Taft informed them that Armenians celebrated Christmas on January 6th, and “between now and then, they have a few other things to do besides worry about your security and accepting gifts.” Unfortunately, even though Taft spoke with Colin Powell about the ridiculous idea, they were unable to get them off of the idea of handing out Christmas presents, and “Bush’s son, Jeb, and grandson, George P. Bush, left for Armenia….”

The book reads a bit like a history text book, which was its downfall for me. I would have much preferred a more personal style that engaged me more emotionally. In any case, it is great to see a strong female character like Taft highlighted, and she was clearly much loved by her colleagues, peers and family.

Ann Blackman is the author of many biographies including Seasons of Her Life, Wild Rose, and co-author of The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen. She previously worked at TIME magazine and The Associated Press, and has appeared on various national TV and radio shows such as A&E Biography, The Diane Rehm Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, CNN, Fox Morning News, CSPAN, to name a few. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and on the coast of Maine.

Read Full Post »

If you happen to be in New York City and have a couple of hours to spare, come on by to this panel today from 12-2 at UNICEF’s Danny Kaye Center. I’ll be doing an overview of some research that Keshet Bachan and I worked on late last year for UNICEF.

There will be some fantastic examples from Tostan, Equal Access, New School and UNICEF on creative ways that new technologies can be used when working directly with marginalized adolescent girls. We’ll also discuss how ICTs and communication for development (C4D) can be used in broader outreach aimed at changing mindsets and behaviors to look more favorably on girls and their capacities and improve their access to new technologies.

Update:  Here’s an article and short video about the panel.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »