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I had a doctor’s appointment a couple months ago, and my doctor asked me if it was OK for a student to do the prep work, you know, the usual: height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, the like. I said sure.

What I didn’t expect though, was that the student intern was going to read through a list of health questions to try to find out if I was menopausal. Nothing against menopause – it’s a natural thing and I think some women even look forward to it. But I just turned 42, and no, I’m not having hot flashes quite yet.

I suppose it’s some kind of mandatory thing to ask a woman who is in her 40s a series of questions like that. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have minded if it had been my doctor asking me. I’ve been seeing her for years now, she knows me, and she knows how to ask questions in the right way. I trust her.

But sitting up on an examination table in a sterile room, clothes off save for an oversized paper gown that keeps falling off my shoulder, with a 20-something I’ve never met sitting in front of me asking if I’m incontinent, suffer from bouts of depression, and have loss of libido was a bit off putting.

It made me want to lie to her. To not reveal any sign of potential menopausal weakness. To tell her that I never feel fatigued. That I never, ever forget anything, and that I am never ever ever distracted or unfocused. I secretly shunned all her suggestions. Calcium? nope, not taking it. Multi vitamins, pah, I feel fine. Let’s get this interview over with STAT.

It felt disempowering to have this young woman, who I don’t know and haven’t developed any trust in, asking me very personal questions about myself and my life and offering scripted solutions to something she imagined I might have, and that she’d obviously never experienced herself.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about it off and on, and related life stories come to mind.

—–

Julia*, someone I was very close to in my Barrio in El Salvador (where I lived for most of the 90s) had a long history of domestic abuse. She would talk to me about it all the time – she still lived with the man, who had tapered off a bit as he got older but who was still not entirely pleasant to her. She would get depressed sometimes and talk about leaving, but she never did. As I got to know her better, I realized my role in the relationship was not trying to find solutions, or criticizing the man, or feeling enraged. It was listening and not judging. An older woman, with a small pension. Where would she go? She believed that she would be seen by the neighbors as weak, and that people would lose respect for her. She really didn’t have a lot of options. So she’d tell me and I’d listen, and that was enough. I’d tell her my work troubles too, and she’d listen, and that was also enough for me. I realize as I write this how much I miss her.

About 15 years ago at work, while still in El Salvador, I was responsible for overseeing a study on gender violence that a partner organization was carrying out and that we were funding. It was going to be a door-to-door survey mixed with some focus group discussions. I immediately thought of Julia; of all the women in the Barrio. I thought ‘Julia would never tell anyone the truth if they came knocking on her door to interview her about domestic violence.’ She would say no, that doesn’t happen here, and close the door until they went away. I doubt any of the other women in the Barrio would have acted any differently.

I felt pretty sure that the information that was produced in that study on domestic violence was not going to be valid, even though it was being managed by a group of well-known, well-educated Salvadoran feminists.  But I felt like I couldn’t say anything, because I wasn’t a well known local feminist. And after all, they’d often imply, what did I know about El Salvador? I was a foreigner. What I did feel certain about was that no one in the Barrios where they wanted to do their study was going to tell them the truth.

—–

And somehow related to that, I started thinking about the time I went to the doctor’s office with my mother-in-law, a brilliant, strong and upright woman from the Barrio, with a 6th grade education, who would be considered ‘impoverished’ by most standards. I remember vividly a young male doctor who addressed her using the familiar form of ‘you’ (vos) instead of using the respectful form of ‘you’ (Usted). I remember being furious. I don’t even use vos with my mother-in-law, out of respect. What was this young, wealthy doctor doing using it? I hated seeing her stripped of her well-earned Barrio respect once she entered the doctor’s office, just because she was poor.

—–

What am I trying to say here? I’m not entirely sure, but I guess I’m thinking about respect and the hierarchies of information and education and offices, and the importance of developing a rapport with people before you go prying around in their personal lives and offering solutions.

I’m relating that to ‘aid’ and ‘development’ work, which in my world, is an intensely personal thing. I try to work from the heart, and I hope I’m never making people feel belittled, judged, or like they need to lie to me or conceal things from me because I haven’t taken the time to get to know them. I hope I’m not disrespecting anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, and that I’m not messing around in things that are none of my business or where I haven’t got an invitation. I hope I’m not always trying to offer solutions, but rather listening and supporting people to come to their own conclusions. I hope I don’t make people feel like they are sitting, half naked on an examination table, while someone who knows nothing about them or their life politely asks them some standard questions and comes up with some generic recommendations for how to prevent or cure something they may or may not have or may not think is an illness.

*Not her real name

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I recently had the honor of leading a group of tech, development and gender folks in a discussion around Girls and ICTs at the Technology Salon.  The conversation revolved around 5 aspects I wrote about in an earlier blog post On Girls and ICTs:

  • Tension between participation and protection
  • Online behavior is an extension of, and a potential amplifier of offline behavior
  • Qualifying the digital divide
  • Girls’ involvement in developing and designing ICT solutions for their own needs
  • Research on Girls and ICTs

Check out the Technology Salon’s page for a round-up of our discussions!

Photo:  Informal evening one-on-one ICT time at a Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) project workshop in Cameroon.

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At the Technology Salon hosted by the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership with Vodafone Foundation on Jan 28, 2010, some folks from the DC area (and beyond) will gather to share experiences around girls and ICTs.

This conversation is an important one, given that gaps exist around discussion, practice and research.  The information and ideas shared at the Technology Salon will feed into the contents of the Girls and ICTs chapter for Plan’s upcoming 2010 “Because I am a Girl” Report (currently in the works).

There are a few points that I hope will be considered in the Technology Salon discussion:

Tension between participation and protection.

There are many examples of ICTs being used for increased participation and connection:  mobile phones for citizen journalism;  Twitter revolution in Iran; girls using mobiles to ask questions about sexuality and to get information to help them improve their sexual and reproductive health; girls married off early or those living in protective societies using mobile phones to maintain contact with friends; new media tools opening up possibilities for youth engagement in important conversations that normally they would be shut out of.

However, due to the very real problems of on-line child pornography, child trafficking, child harassment, and cyber bullying, there is also a strong push for more control, more restrictions on on-line use in the name of protecting children.  The tension between child participation and child protection is a very real one.

As we look at how technology and international development communities can support girls’ development, I hope it’s kept in mind that the more knowledge that girls have about the internet and ICTs in general, the more practical use they are allowed, the more coaching to help them understand implications of their actions, then the better prepared they will be to navigate these realms and to keep themselves safe.  Increasing their knowledge, abilities and desire to protect themselves may be more effective than setting strict external limitations.

Actively engaging girls in this as part of an educational process can be better than restricting their use – and being open to young people’s own ideas and ways of using ICTs is critical.  Adult involvement in this area is important, but it is probably more worthwhile to coach than to control.  Good communication and trust between children, youth and their adult mentors and guides is critical in this process. (Excellent resources on Child Online Protection (COP) for children, youth, educators and parents came out on October 2009 and are well worth the read.)

Online behavior mirrors offline behavior.

I remember getting an obscene phone call when I was around 8 years old.  My mother did not blame the telephone, however. She blamed the pervert that was calling.  She made sure to teach me how to be prepared in case it happened again. She emphasized not giving out information on the phone and hanging up immediately if I felt uncomfortable or didn’t know who was calling.  She did not prohibit me from ever touching the phone again or blame me, but she was vigilant for awhile.

In the same way, new ICTs themselves cannot be blamed for negative and twisted behaviors.  ICTs are tools that exacerbate and extend already existing human behaviors, and the blame lies with those who are using ICTs for child trafficking, cyber bullying and the other evils associated with the internet. It’s important to address underlying behaviors. Research shows that kids who are bullied offline are often also bullied online.  Girls who are vulnerable offline are likely also vulnerable online.  Online is a manifestation of offline, and the root causes of girls’ vulnerabilities online cannot be blamed only on the ICT tools themselves.

I have my own daughter now, and have discussed with her many times how to keep herself safe online and on the phone.  It’s important for her to know this before something happens, not during or after.  She will probably be using the internet and the phone for the rest of her life, so prohibiting them is not an option, and the benefits of using these tools obviously outweigh the risks.  My own involvement and use of social networking sites, texting, etc. is an excellent way for me to know how these sites are used and what security holes there are for my children on the sites. How can parents and teachers in areas with limited use of ICTs be involved and engaged to serve as coaches and leaders in on-line protection together with children?  How can communities help identify existing vulnerabilities in girls (or young people in general) that might manifest themselves online and offer support to prevent exploitation?

Digital gender divide.

There are some amazing examples of ICTs helping women and girls to improve their livelihoods; for example, women selling mobile telephone services; birth attendance being improved by using mobile phones to connect women to midwives, ambulances and other medical services; educational content being  expanded using internet; youth media and youth radio programs bringing girls voices and gender topics into the mix for community discussion and dialogue.

However, in places where boys and men dominate women and girls, boys and men likely also dominate the use of available ICTs.  Men may control the family’s mobile phone and take it with them, or monitor women’s calls. In places where boys are more favored, their confidence to try new things is higher meaning they may rush in to use mobiles, cameras, radio equipment in projects while girls shy back.  In some cases girls report that boys hog and monopolize the computers and equipment, and access is denied.  I’ve seen boys criticize, scorn and ridicule girls who are using equipment for the first time, and girls become too timid to try again.  In many developing countries, just getting girls to attend school is difficult.  If girls are assumed to be less intelligent or less worthy than boys, and their secondary school attendance (where ICT training might be offered) is not a priority, girls will have a very difficult time ever accessing and using ICTs.

Underlying issues surrounding girls’ participation in general need to be addressed.  We need to think about how ICTs can be used to help girls’ inclusion, participation and self esteem increase in general.

Girls involvement in developing and designing ICT solutions for their own needs.

Studies in several countries have shown that girls and boys use technology in different ways and for different things.  What specific ICT needs do underprivileged girls in ‘developing’ countries have? Is anyone asking? What processes or solutions already exist that take girls’ ICT needs into account?  What environments are necessary for girls to engage in defining, deciding and creating ICT solutions? Where are they already engaging, and how can communities, schools, organizations and businesses support and recreate those environments?  How can processes and products be designed together with girls?

Tech is still a field heavily dominated by males.  In the US, for example, some women in tech have pulled together to question this and to advocate for more opportunities for women to break into the male dominated worlds of publication owners, conference speakers, businesses, well known innovators, and “best of” lists.  There have been protests against prominent companies for promoting “Booth Babes” and in one case last year, strippers, at tech conferences.  This brings the question – in places without female tech role models and respectful environments, how can girls see themselves as leaders in this field?

Specific research on girls and ICTs.

There is not a lot of information on the impact of ICTs on the lives of girls in ‘developing’ countries, especially studies that go beyond establishment of computer centers.  There is  anecdotal evidence of positive impact of mobile phones on women. There are studies on the digital gender divide for women; on child trafficking and other negative aspects of the internet; and on use of internet and technology among youth in the US, UK, Australia, etc.  It’s been difficult to find a lot of information on the use of ICTs by girls in the “South.”  It would be interesting for more research to be done on girls and ICTs in the “South” and for some good practices to be shared. Hopefully someone at the Technology Salon will be able to share some insight on this.

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Sometimes being a girl is no piece of cake.  For the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) workshop we hoped to have 50% girls participating, and we ended up with about 15 girls and 40 boys.  The boys raised this on the 3rd day of the workshop (through no prompting by the facilitators).  “Why aren’t there more girls here? And the girls who are here, they never talk, they just sit there.” “They don’t have the ambition or the drive to improve themselves so they don’t even come to workshops like this when they have the opportunity”. Photo: Painting the mural.

Most of the girls listened to this criticism without responding.  “Girls – what do you have to say about this?” asked one of the facilitators.  Silence.  “See, even now they just sit there and don’t defend themselves,” complained the boys. More silence.  Finally one girl spoke up “You don’t know what it’s like.  We can’t get permission to come. It’s very difficult for us. Our parents don’t trust us. They think we are just coming to play. They want us to stay at home to do work during our school break.”  “But you have the same letter from the school that we do! Why can’t you learn to negotiate with your parents like we do?”  More silence.  The discussion turned to effective negotiation skills to communicate with and convince parents to allow both girls and boys to participate. “Our parents and grandparents are not ignorant donkeys; they are just from another time. They have never had the opportunity to participate in projects and workshops or even to go to school. They don’t know why we think it’s important.  We need to become better at talking with them, to counsel them and help them to see what we are doing so that they will allow us to join in these efforts.”

Being a girl isn’t only an obstacle to participating in workshops.  In the community over the past 3 weeks, I saw and heard about the challenges girls face to achieve an education, avoid unwanted advances, including from teachers, and avoid early pregnancies.  Most of the time there is no space for these issues to be discussed openly among both boys and girls, and with adults.  Plan’s two campaigns, Learn without Fear and Because I am a Girl, seem extremely relevant to the context.

A Conquista

The hottest debate of the 2 weeks was not “poverty” or “lack of water” or anything typically thought of as a “development” issue.  It was “a conquista” or the process of getting a girl/being wooed by a boy.  It was nice to see the girls getting more vocal as we got further along into the workshop. “We try to talk to girls and they don’t respond.  They just ignore us! So it makes us angry,” said one of the guys.  A girl countered “We are afraid when someone approaches us, because if we don’t agree, a boy or a man may get angry and they can find us and take out their aggression on us, they can rape us.”  “Sometimes if girls talk to one of us, and then talk to another of us also, what boys do then is to join together and show her that she can’t play with us, show her she can’t act like that,” said one of the boys. “It’s true,” said a girl, “We are afraid because they get mad if we don’t talk to them.”  “You should talk to us then!” interrupted a boy.  “What, can I give myself to every single male in the village just because he wants me?” exclaimed one of the girls.  This forum was incredibly important for guys and girls to have a time and a place to hear each other out, see each others’ points of view and try to understand each other.  There is a lot of room for awareness building on gender violence.  I even heard one teenage girl in one of the nearby communities say “if it’s just one man, it’s not really a rape…. it has to be 3 or 4.”

So I was really happy that the theater group decided to do their play about the things that girls face, even more so because there were only about 4 girls in the theater group, and the 3 facilitators were male.  (There are not many female teachers and facilitators to work with). Now that we had divided into small group and we’d been working together for several days, the girls’ voices were much louder. Photo: the issues chosen by the theater group included early marriage, drug abuse, physical aggression in families, corrupt police, professors/student fights, lack of value placed on girls within families.

Community Showcase

The groups had their showcase on Nov. 20, coinciding with the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Some 300 people from nearby primary schools and communities attended the event.The painting group’s mural greeted people as they came into the school grounds. Under giant orange tarp (which pretty much ruined any chance of getting good photos/videos since everything had a very strange light) the music group sang 2 songs about education and HIV prevention and performed a traditional dance.  The media group showed 6 of their videos, on life in the community, the importance of the river, trash in the market, the discotheque, and the local cinemas.  The journalism group shared their community newspaper, and the theater group performed their play.

On being a girl…

The storyline in the play is of a girl whose father marries her off for money; she is taken off to her new husband’s place and becomes pregnant. Her husband is abusive, alcoholic and brings other women home. He beats her, but her mother finds out and they report it to the police.  The police come to take a report, admonishing the husband and telling him that he is going to jail.  No matter, nothing a little private conversation and bribe won’t solve.  So the tables turn with the policeman admonishing the girl that she should not treat her husband badly and she deserves what she got.  As soon as the police leave, he beats the girl again, shouting as her father had shouted at her mother “In this house it’s the man who’s in charge!” He throws her out on the street. A friend tries to convince her to prostitute herself and make good money and she refuses.  The play ends as she looks at the audience, carrying the small bundle of her child, and asks “Why will people say this is my fault?”  The other actors come out one by one, calling on governments, parents, friends, school, teachers to see the situation clearly and to take on their responsibilities to change this scenario.  I have to say it was one of the best theater pieces I’ve ever seen, and it was written entirely by this group of 9th and 10th graders. Photo: Theater group closing out after a day of rehearsing.

The best tools to get the message across

Each different art or media form carried the messages on issues that the youth want to raise and change in their communities.  Once more it was a reminder that it’s the communication objectives and impact on the audience that matter, and the choice of the tools should be secondary, based on the outcomes to achieve.  We are not “doing media projects”, but helping kids to use different tools, including media, to dig into their realities and then use those tools as effective means of communication to make change in their communities.  What may be a great topic for a video, may not work so well as theater, and vice versa. In the process of discussing the issues and the media forms that would be best to make change in the community, both boys and girls learn new personal skills and improve their self esteem as well as their own communication skills.  They also have an opportunity to openly and deeply discuss issues among themselves and to understand each other better.  The discussion around gender issues and how the same challenges may affect girls and boys differently is one of the most important that they can have.

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