Girls and ICTs: Salon Thoughts and Conclusions

The Girls and ICT Technology Salon was a great opportunity to get an amazing group of thinkers and do-ers in the same room to debate around a particular topic. I’m Linda Raftree, Plan International West Africa Regional Office, Advisor for New Technology and Social Media. I was honored to lead 20+ people in a conversation revolving around 5 aspects I mentioned in my 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

My impressions from the Salon on the topics are below. These points and others raised in the Salon were fed into a high level consultation for Plan’s upcoming 2010 Because I am a Girl Report (in process).
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Does ICT education help girls?

The main point here is that ICTs offer girls (and people in general) huge opportunities for increased participation and connection. However, due to the very real problems of on-line child pornography, child trafficking, child harassment, and cyber bullying, there is a strong push by some for more control and more restricted on-line use by children and youth in the name of protecting them.

Girls, however, can participate actively in self-protection if given the opportunity to learn and practice. Teachers and adults can play a role as guides, coaches and support systems for girls to feel comfortable with ICTs and also to help them navigate and protect themselves on-line. Globally, there are differing levels of openness to girls (and children in general) going on-line. In US schools, there seems to be a stronger focus on the dangers of the internet and a bigger resistance to ICT’s in education as opposed to many ‘developing’ countries. Adults in these particular ‘developing’ countries seem to be less focused on the dangers of the internet and much more aware of the opportunities for connection, advancement, broadened educational opportunities and employment that ICTs represent.

Online behavior is an extension of, and a potential amplifier of offline behavior

ICTs are not the problem in and of themselves – they reflect existing social issues, existing human behaviors. ICTs become a concern because they can exacerbate negative behaviors, such as bullying, pornography, early sexualization of girls, trafficking, sugar daddies, sexting, etc. Girls, boys, youth shouldn’t be banned from using ICT’s; they should be supported to learn to navigate these spaces and use them positively. There are examples of safe platforms where children can talk to each other ( eg., a ‘sand box’ to learn and be safe).

Girls (and boys) who are vulnerable online are usually also vulnerable offline, and this is where any intervention should begin. Life skills and self-confidence are critical, and these need to begin at an early age, before girls and boys even go on-line. There is a need to be aware of the law enforcement agenda which, to stop pedophilia, advises children not to go online, as opposed to preparing them for a lifetime use of ICTs. This can backfire when children go around these controls and don’t know how to self-protect. It can subsume the positive aspects of cyberspace and ICTs and create unnecessary fear in parents and other adults. Adult-child communication and cooperation in protection/learning to navigate is critical here and preferable to outright prohibition of Internet access.

Qualifying the digital divide

We often think about the digital divide in terms of economics, ‘developing’ vs ‘developed’ countries, but we need to also consider the gender divide, urban-rural divide, age divide, disability divide. These divides all need to be taken into consideration when working with girls and ICTs, and ICT related programs in general and we need to be quite specific when talking about ‘access.’ For example, girls working as maids in urban areas vs. girls living in wealthy homes in those same areas may have quite different access levels, though they are both ‘urban girls.’ We need to talk about the gender divide in terms of males as partners, not just as obstacles to girls’ ICT access. ICTs can also be used to positively influence the behavior of men, and men and boys can be participants and partners in programs to support girls’ access to ICTs.

Young people tend to be better than their parents and teachers at learning and manipulating new technology. This can be disempowering and threatening for adults. It also means that parents and other adults may be less able to provide support to children who are using ICTs and navigating cyberspace. Institutions that provide different services may need to be retrained to deliver their services for a younger population using mobile phones and internet as their usage grows, to go where young people, where girls are. For example, in Sweden, psychologists are offering services in authorized chat rooms. Children profess to feeling safer there as it gives them anonymity.

There is a perceived divide between the tech sector and the NGO/development sector, and also between the tech sector and the gender sector. It’s important to bridge these disconnects for better work in all these sectors.

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

It’s important to think about whether girls are involved and engaged in voicing their needs and whether those who are designing ICT processes and solutions are listening and involving girls in them. A study in the EU found a difference in how boys and girls use technology by the level of middle school. Girls tend to then use ICTs for social purposes whereas boys think of them in terms of employment. It’s suggested that girls need female mentors and role models that use technology and that work in the technology field.

Putting tech in the hands of women, for example, primary school teachers, can increase their status and strength as role models and enable them to carry out different and important roles in the community. To help girls feel more empowered, one program trains exclusively girls as ICT facilitators. The girls then train boys and the rest of the community at a big public community festival. This breaks down barriers and allows girls to take a leading role. A broad and representative range of girls should have a seat at the table to give ideas and input into research and design of technology solutions for their protection and their empowerment. This will make ICT initiatives more successful, relevant and realistic.

Specific research on girls and ICTs

There is quite a bit of research on girls education. However, there is not a lot of specific research on girls and ICTs in “developing” countries or on the specific impact of a particular ICT or ICT-related process in reaching development objectives. Most of what is there is anecdotal. Funding for Girls and ICTs will likely be dependent on evidence gathered through monitoring and evaluation to prove certain approaches work and to discover the differentiated impact and role of ICTs in the process. It’s quite difficult to unpack the impact of a particular technology given the variety of other conditions and elements in an initiative. How can ICT impact or influence be measured as something separate from reaching the broader goals in an initiative? And should it be?

There may be ways that skilled monitoring and evaluation experts can pinpoint whether a particular methodology that involves ICTs did have a greater impact on reaching goals; however, there are many other content variables eg., quality of training provided in the project, location, interest of participants, methodology, etc. that may be more important than the ICTs themselves in terms of impact.

If you’d like to lead a session of the Technology Salon, please email me today!.

One Response

  1. rca ieftin says:

    I believe the girls and the boys must be equal in any competition. This salon shows exactly this thing and the people must agree with this idea. It seems to be a good thing to promote these activities in this way.