Technology Salon

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How We Can Use ICTs to Engage Adolescent Girls

At the November 8th Technology Salon in New York City, we looked at the role of ICTs in communication for development (C4D) initiatives with marginalized adolescent girls. Lead discussants Kerida McDonald and Katarzyna Pawelczyk discussed recent UNICEF reports related to the topic, and John Zoltner spoke about FHI360’s C4D work in practice.

To begin, it was pointed out that C4D is not donor communications or marketing. It is the use of communication approaches and methodologies to achieve influence at various levels – e.g., family, institutional and policy – to change behavior and social norms. C4D is one approach that is being used to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion.


As the UNICEF report on ICTs and C4D* notes, girls may face a number of situations that contribute to and/or are caused by their marginalization: early pregnancy, female genital cutting, early marriage, high rates of HIV/AIDS, low levels of education, lack of control over resources. ICTs alone cannot resolve these, because there is a deep and broad set of root causes. However, ICTs can be integrated systematically into the set of C4D tools and approaches that contribute to positive change.

Issues like bandwidth, censorship and electricity need to be considered when integrating ICTs into C4D work, and approaches that fit the context need to be developed. Practitioners should use tools that are in the hands of girls and their communities now, yet be aware of advances in access and new technologies, as these change rapidly.

Key points:

Interactivity is more empowering than one-way messaging:  Many of the ICT solutions being promoted today focus on sending messages out via mobile phones. However C4D approaches aim for interactivity and multi-channel, multi-directional communication, which has proven more empowering.

Content: Traditional media normally goes through a rigorous editorial process and it is possible to infuse it with a gender balance. Social media does not have the same type of filters, and it can easily be used to reinforce stereotypes about girls. This is something to watch and be aware of.

Purpose: It’s common with ICT-related approaches to start with the technology rather than starting with the goals. As one Salon participant asked “What are the results we want to see for ourselves? What are the results that girls want to see? What are the root causes of discrimination and how are we trying to address them? What does success look like for girls? For organizations? Is there a role for ICTs in helping achieve success? If so, what is it?” These questions need to be the starting point, rather than the technology.

Participation: One Salon participant mentioned a 2-year project that is working together with girls to define their needs and their vision of success. The process is one co-design, and it is aimed at understanding what girls want. Many girls expressed a feeling of isolation and desire for connection, and so the project is looking at how ICTs can help them connect. As the process developed, the diversity of needs became very clear and plans have changed dramatically based on input from a range of girls from different contexts. Implementors need to be prepared to change, adapt and respond to what girls say they want and to local realities.



A second study commissioned by UNICEF explores how young people use social media. The researchers encountered some challenges in terms of a strong gender approach for the study. Though a gender lens was used for analysis, there is little available data disaggregated by sex. The study does not focus on the most marginalized, because it looks at the use of social media, which normally requires a data connection or Internet access, which the most marginalized youth usually do not have.

The authors of the report found that youth most commonly used the Internet and social media for socializing and communicating with friends. Youth connected less often for schoolwork. One reason for this may be that in the countries/contexts where the research took place, there is no real integration of ICTs into the school system. It was emphasized that the  findings in the report are not comparable or nationally representative, and blanket statements such as “this means x for the whole developing world” should be avoided.

Key points:

Self-reporting biases. Boys tend to have higher levels of confidence and self-report greater ICT proficiency than girls do. This may skew results and make it seem that boys have higher skill levels.

Do girls really have less access? We often hear that girls have less access than boys. The evidence gathered for this particular report found that “yes and no.” In some places, when researchers asked “Do you have access to a mobile,” there was not a huge difference between urban and rural or between boys and girls. When they dug deeper, however, it became more complex. In the case of Zambia, access and ownership were similar for boys and girls, but fewer girls were connecting at all to the Internet as compared to boys. Understanding connectivity and use was quite complicated.

What are girls vs. boys doing online? This is an important factor when thinking about what solutions are applicable to which situation(s). Differences came up here in the study. In Argentina, girls were doing certain activities more frequently, such as chatting and looking for information, but they were not gaming. In Zambia, girls were doing some things less often than boys; for example, fewer girls than boys were looking for health information, although the number was still significant. A notable finding was that both girls and boys were accessing general health information more often than they were accessing sensitive information, such as sexual health or mental health.

What are the risks in the online world? A qualitative portion of the study in Kenya used focus groups with girls and boys, and asked about their uses of social media and experience of risk. Many out-of-school girls aged 15-17 reported that they used social media as a way to meet a potential partner to help them out of their financial situation. They reported riskier behavior, contact with older men, and relationships more often than girls who were in school. Girls in general were more likely to report unpleasant online encounters than boys, for example, request for self-exposure photos.

Hiding social media use. Most of the young people that researchers spoke with in Kenya were hiding social media use from their parents, who disapproved of it. This is an important point to note in C4D efforts that plan on using social media, and program designers will want to take parental attitudes about different media and communication channels into consideration as they design C4D programs.


When implementing programs, it is noteworthy how boys and girls tend to use ICT and media tools. Gender issues often manifest themselves right away. “The boys grab the cameras, the boys sit down first at the computers.” If practitioners don’t create special rules and a safe space for girls to participate, girls may be marginalized. In practical ICT and media work, it’s common for boys and girls to take on certain roles. “Some girls like to go on camera, but more often they tend to facilitate what is being done rather than star in it.” The gender gap in ICT access and use, where it exists, is a reflection of the power gaps of society in general.

In the most rural areas, even when people have access, they usually don’t have the resources and skills to use ICTs.  Very simple challenges can affect girls’ ability to participate in projects, for example, oftentimes a project will hold training at times when it’s difficult for girls to attend. Unless someone systematically goes through and applies a gender lens to a program, organizations often don’t notice the challenges girls may face in participating. It’s not enough to do gender training or measure gender once a year; gendered approaches needs to be built into program design.

Long-terms interventions are needed if the goal is to emancipate girls, help them learn better, graduate, postpone pregnancy, and get a job. This cannot be done in a year with a simple project that has only one focus, because girls are dealing with education, healthcare, and a whole series of very entrenched social issues. What’s needed is to follow a cohort of girls and to provide information and support across all these sectors over the long-term.

Key points:

Engaging boys and men: Negative reactions from men are a concern if and when girls and women start to feel more empowered or to access resources. For example, some mobile money and cash transfer programs direct funds to girls and women, and some studies have found that violence against women increases when women start to have more money and more freedom. Another study, however, of a small-scale effort that provides unconditional cash transfers to girls ages 18-19 in rural Kenya, is demonstrating just the opposite: girls have been able to say where money is spent and the gender dynamics have improved. This raises the question of whether program methodologies need to be oriented towards engaging boys and men and involving them in changing gender dynamics, and whether engaging boys and men can help avoid an increase in violence. Working with boys to become “girl champions” was cited as a way to help to bring boys into the process as advocates and role models.

Girls as producers, not just consumers. ICTs are not only tools for sending content to girls. Some programs are working to help girls produce content and create digital stories in their own languages. Sometimes these stories are used to advocate to decision makers for change in favor of girls and their agendas. Digital stories are being used as part of research processes and to support monitoring, evaluation and accountability work through ‘real-time’ data.

ICTs and social accountability. Digital tools are helping young people address accountability issues and inform local and national development processes. In some cases, youth are able to use simple, narrow bandwidth tools to keep up to date on actions of government officials or to respond to surveys to voice their priorities. Online tools can also lead to offline, face-to-face engagement. One issue, however, is that in some countries, youth are able to establish communication with national government ministers (because there is national-level capacity and infrastructure) but at local level there is very little chance or capability for engagement with elected officials, who are unprepared to respond and engage with youth or via social media. Youth therefore tend to bypass local government and communicate with national government. There is a need for capacity building at local level and decentralized policies and practices so that response capacity is strengthened.

Do ICTs marginalize girls? Some Salon participants worried that as conversations and information increasingly move to a digital environment, ICTs are magnifying the information and communication divide and further marginalizing some girls. Others felt that the fact that we are able to reach the majority of the world’s population now is very significant, and the inability to reach absolutely everyone doesn’t mean we should stop using ICTs. For this very reason – because sharing of information is increasingly digital – we should continue working to get more girls online and strengthen their confidence and abilities to use ICTs.

Many thanks to UNICEF for hosting the Salon!

(Salons operate under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been given in the above summary. Sign up here if you’d like to attend Salons in the future!)

*Disclosure: I co-authored this report with Keshet Bachan.

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