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Because I am a Girl 2010

The urban and digital environments are the 21st century’s fastest-growing spheres. Both offer enormous potential for girls around the world, but prejudice and poverty exclude millions of girls from taking advantages of the transformative possibilities that cities and information and communication technologies (ICTs) can offer.  Exploitation and the threat of violence exist in both urban spaces and in cyberspace, especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable girls.

Since 2007, Plan has published annual reports on the state of the world’s girls. The 2010 ‘Because I am a Girl report’ is called Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape. It focuses on girls in these two rapidly expanding spaces: the urban and the digital.

The piece that I’m most interested is the segment on Girls and ICTs, since that’s the main area I currently work on. (Disclosure: I contributed to the development of the chapter). To give you a taste of what’s in the report, here’s a summary of Chapter 4: Adolescent girls and communications technologies – opportunity or exploitation. You can download the full report here.

Chapter 4’s introduction explains that online behaviors mimic offline behaviors.  Empowerment and abuse of girls reveals itself through technology as it does in other areas of girls’ lives.  Through girls own voices, expert opinion and original research, the report highlights the positive and negative consequences of ICTs, in particular mobile phones and the Internet. The authors talk about the positive ideas and new ways of thinking that ICTs open up for girls in terms of learning, networking, campaigning and personal development. They then discuss the darker side of technology  — how cyberspace makes it easier for sexual predators to operate with impunity, where girls are prime targets for abuse, and where girls are sometimes perpetrators themselves.

Section Two offers girl-related statistics on the digital revolution and the digital divide and highlights the enormous variation between and within countries in terms of digital access, and the gaps between rich and poor, male and female, urban and rural.  The report cautions that excluding girls from the digital revolution will have consequences on their growth and development. For additional global ICT statistics (1998-2009) see this post at ICT4D blog. Another resource on mobiles and women is the Cherie Blair study.

Section Three describes and provides statistics around 7 important reasons that ICTs are important to adolescent girls:

  1. To keep in touch with others and reduce isolation in countries where this is an issue
  2. To further their education and acquire new skills
  3. To take an active part in their communities and countries
  4. In order to have the skills to find work
  5. To build specific skills and knowledge on subjects they might otherwise not know about, such as HIV and AIDS
  6. Because evidence has shown that learning to use these technologies can build self-esteem
  7. In order to keep safe

Section Four goes in depth around ways that adolescent girls compete with adolescent boys for the most use of communications technologies such as mobiles and the Internet, but that often they are using them for different reasons and different purposes. Most of the available research for this chapter is from the ‘North’, yet the studies indicate that girls tend to use ICTs for communication and boys tend toward a focus on the technology itself. Studies on this from the ‘South’ are unavailable to date.

When girls are treated as real partners....

Section Five discusses the barriers that keep adolescent girls from accessing ICTs. In other words, if the importance of ICTs has been established, girls are willing and able and keen to use ICTs, then what prevents them from having equal access to ICTs? Some of the issues that the chapter discusses are those of power and control.

‘I can immediately call the wholesale market to inquire about prices and place direct orders. I am now recognized as a businesswoman, growing and selling sesame seeds, not just as somebody’s wife or sister,’ said a woman in India.

‘You’re a girl – a mobile can cause many problems, and so you don’t need it,’ said the father of a Palestinian girl.

Girls’ access to technology is limited by their societies, communities and families. In patriarchal societies where men control technology, girls and women simply have less access, because ICT’s confer power on the user. Even in educational settings, a study found that boys tend to hog available ICTs. Teachers have distinct expectations from boys vs. girls. Girls also don’t tend to go into the field of ICTs or want to have ICT careers, since the field is typically a male field. ‘Technology appears to be marketed by men for men. It’s time we started switching bright and talented girls on to science and technology,’ comments a British government official.

Women and girls in developing countries however are not receiving the basic education and training that they need to be ready technology adopters. They are seen as users and receivers of technology, not as innovators involved in technology design and development. Once they are computer literate, however, many young women see the computer industry as a route to independence. The report offers statistics on the numbers of young women in countries like South Africa, India, Malaysia and Brazil who are working in the ICT related industries and professions.

What stops girls from using technology?

There are seven key factors that prevent girls from taking advantage of technology:

  1. Discrimination – girls are still viewed as second-class citizens in many societies.
  2. Numbers – boys both outnumber girls and tend to dominate access to computers.
  3. Confidence – because they don’t have equal access at school, girls may be less confident than boys when it comes to going into IT jobs because they don’t feel they have the same skills and knowledge as the young men competing for the jobs.
  4. Language – in order to use these technologies, English is usually a requirement, and for girls with only basic literacy in their own language, this is a major barrier.
  5. Time – girls’ domestic roles, even at a young age, mean they have less free time than boys to explore and experiment with new technologies.
  6. Money – girls are less likely than their brothers to have the financial resources to pay for, say, a mobile phone and its running costs, or access to the web in an internet café.
  7. Freedom – boys are also more likely to be allowed to use internet cafés because parents are concerned about their daughters going out on their own.

Section Six digs into the dark side of cyberspace and the risks that adolescent are exposed to at a time of their lives when they are beginning to develop sexually. One in 5 women report having been sexually abused before the age of 15, according to the authors. The Internet by and large is simply a new medium for old kinds of bad behavior, however; and new technologies simply extend the possibility of abuse to new arenas. Girls who are not even using the Internet are still vulnerable, given that a photo of them can be taken and posted by someone else even if they have no computer access. Cyberbullying and cyberharrassment are other risks that girls face.

Many young people and youth organizations are active in facing these risks and protecting themselves, and various campaigns exist to help adolescent girls be more aware of how to protect themselves while using ICTs. New technology can itself also be a tool to help with counter-trafficking efforts. The chapter outlines some of the different efforts being made to protect girls online, and emphasizes the role of parents and schools in discussing on-line use and being supportive as girls begin exploring cyberspace.

There is a quite broad set of recommendations for a wide array of actors at the end of Chapter 4 that could be taken up, contextualized and fleshed out by different parties or stakeholders into specific calls to action:

Brazilian girls in a digital world. As an annex to Chapter 4 on ICTs, new research with 49 boys and 44 girls, aged 10-14 examines adolescent girls’ rights and protection in Brazil within the context of ICTs. ICT use is growing exponentially in Brazil, particularly among 15-17 year olds, where between 2005 and 2008, ICT usage went from 33.7 to 62.9 percent. The study covers use pattern, links between on-line and off-line behavior, and on-line safety.

Conclusions. The report concludes by calling for greater knowledge about ICT-related sexual exploitation and violence against girls, more emphasis on prevention and stronger international standards. It also points out that girls need to be empowered to use new communications technologies safely, on their own terms, and in ways that promote their development and build their futures.

Call to action for September 22: As part of the launch of the Because I am a Girl Report, Plan is calling for International Day of the Girl to be established on September 22. You can sign the petition here.

Resources

Download the full report here: Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape

Download the Girl’s Cohort Study: Real Choices, Real Lives. Plan researchers follow 142 girls lives over a 9-year period.

Download past Because I am a Girl Reports (since 2007)

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On girls and ICTs

Revisiting the topic of girls and ICTS: Tech Salon Discussions

Being a girl in Cumbana

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3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs


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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.

Related posts:
On Girls and ICTs
An example of youth led community change in Mali
Breaking it down: Violence against Children
Stories that touch the heart

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Next week I’ll have the honor of (wo)manning the expo table for Plan at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Exchange [the networking event after the actual CGI meeting]. It’s Plan’s first year at the CGI, which is exciting for us as an organization. The project that we’ve committed to is a convergence of many of the things that Plan has been getting deeper and deeper into in the past few years – youth engagement, youth employment, participatory media, social media, ICTs, youth voice, youth-led advocacy, and last but not least, girl power. I’ll be supporting the project with some training around social media and ICTs based on experiences in past projects such as the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media project.

Our commitment, Vocational Skills and Media Training for Adolescent Girls in Ghana, is a three-year project that combines job skills training for girls with media production by girls.  The combination of these two elements will give girls key skill sets for employment opportunities while also creating public platforms for girls to raise awareness and advocate on issues affecting them. Through the project 140 adolescent girls will participate in training on media production and journalism, including citizen journalism/social media.  Of those, some will go on to participate in an internship program to do hands-on work in media.  The girls will be trained on how to use diverse types of media, including traditional as well as new media, to advocate against gender discrimination.  Adult journalists will participate in Plan’s training program on child rights and gender respect in media.  In the process, the project will engage the public through radio, television and web communication around the challenges that adolescent girls face in West Africa at the community, national, and regional levels. Participating girls will also have opportunities to meet and share experiences with each other and their female Ghanaian journalist mentors.

I really like this project because it brings so many critical elements into one initiative.  More and more Plan is supporting this type of work in Africa, and it really makes a difference in the youth themselves in terms of skills, self confidence, team work, and learning how to communicate issues of importance in a confident and respectful way.  It helps them access information and new skills that help them find employment. It also has an impact on communities who see their youth in a new light and who become more open to dialogue with youth around issues that youth want to discuss but may not be able to bring up in existing forums.  The media produced by children and youth can raise awareness and encourage dialogue at the national level, and it can be presented in global meetings to bring youth voices and a dose of reality into high level discussions. It can be shared on the internet to engage and involve people in other parts of the world, and to break down stereotypes about Africans. I also think one outcome will be that the participating girls and women will contribute to modernizing the field of journalism in Ghana because they will be trained on new media tools and they will likely think seriously about how girls are portrayed by the media in the future.

Plan’s research “Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls” came out in 2007, highlighting the urgency for us to focus more programs on girls as key players.  Out of this report, a decision was made to make girls Plan’s key focus over the next several years, and the Because I am a Girl Campaign was launched.  Since then, two in depth studies have highlighted specific issues: Because I am a Girl: In the Shadow of War (2008), and Girl’s Economic Empowerment (coming out later this month).

Come by our table to say hi if you happen to be at CGI exchange!

Related posts:

On Girls and ICTs

Being a girl in Cumbana

An example of youth-led community change in Mali

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