ICT access alone won’t empower girls, unless it is made part of a holistic strategy that tackles gender discrimination, poverty and all barriers that prevent girls from going to school.
In rural Cameroon, two teenage girls are doing their best to access a computer in a poorly equipped computer lab in their school. There are 10 computers for 1,000 students, and only five of them work. Girls end up fighting with boys to use the functioning computers. “When a girl succeeds to sit at a computer … a boy will raise his voice … saying ‘why should you be holding a computer mouse when at the end of the day you will hold a baby’s napkin,'” says 17-year-old Fabiola.*
The second International Day of the Girl on 11 October, focuses on ‘innovating for girls education.’ Innovation is often used interchangeably with information communication technologies, and any programme that involves a computer or mobile device is mistakenly touted as ‘innovative’. Although new technologies hold great potential for empowering girls and supporting their education, one cannot ignore the barriers many girls face in accessing and using ICTs.
These include girls being discriminated against because they are seen as a burden and inferior to boys.
A new Unicef report (pdf) supports the premise that innovation should look at more than just the means of implementation. Innovation should, instead, be evaluated in terms of outcomes. The report suggests that when measures are taken to overcome the barriers girls face, the inclusion of new ICTs into proven communication for development (C4D) strategies can help 1) expand and extend girls’ connection, engagement and agency; 2) increase girls’ access to knowledge; and 3) improve governance and service delivery.
U-Report, for example, works through partners in Uganda to reach a network of youth reporters who share their views on a variety of topics by answering a survey sent to them via mobile phone. Information is used to orient government responses. A girls security mapping initiative, implemented by Map Kibera and supported by Unicef, enabled girls to use digital mapping as a way of identifying places where they felt unsafe. They then engaged community leaders in addressing their concerns. The Rural voices of youth programme in Nepal added SMS as a new option for young people to join discussions on issues affecting them and saw a large boost in participation from populations outside of urban areas.
Though including ICTs in programmes has enhanced girls’ access to vital information and offered new channels for them to participate, many causes of girls’ low access to education can be resolved only through long-term initiatives to promote gender equality and reduce poverty.
As part of the report, Plan International conducted a ‘fast-talk’ consultation with adolescent girls from several countries to get a better idea of what they see as the innovative and empowering potential of ICTs in their lives. Their responses inevitably tied back to the importance of education and holistic programming: “Girls are still treated as second priority … in our community. Once both males and females get the) same opportunity to get (a) good education this problem will be solved forever,” said Minakshi, 15, from India.
A core tenant of C4D is to work with all the orbits of influence that surround adolescent girls, including individuals and institutions such as family, community and policy makers. In this way, C4D strategies create spaces for dialogue and participation that transform these systems of relations, ultimately allowing girls to develop in a supportive environment.
In order to transform the lives of adolescent girls, a holistic approach is needed — one that takes into account the many obstacles that the most marginalised adolescent girls face, such as low rates of schooling, early pregnancy, sexual violence, disability, low availability of ICTs in schools and communities, poverty, discrimination and the heavy burden of household chores. Once these challenges are accounted for, the added benefit of integrating ICTs into development programming can be truly transformative and earn the term ‘innovative’.