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Girl power can smash the digital divide

  • Published at 12:01 am August 8th, 2016
Girl power can smash the digital divide

As the famous Mao Zedong quote goes: “women hold up half the sky.” But with telephone lines and mobile service towers decorating the skyline across the country, girls must be fully able to utilise and innovate using available technologies in order to become the productive leaders they have the potential to be.

According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the 4th highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls married before the age of 15, and 65% before the age of 18.

Major drivers of child marriage are poverty, inability to afford the fees that accompany even public education, and embedded cultural practices.

Poverty rates have dropped, and female literacy, school enrolment, and attendance rates have surpassed that of their male peers up through secondary school. But child marriage continues to be prevalent.

Cultural practices and ingrained patriarchal attitudes are two of the main remaining factors that must be given special attention to break down.

Technology can enable women living in rural and semi-rural areas to receive targeted educational and leadership support so that they feel empowered to break down societal barriers to their success.

Exposure to technology itself allows young women a chance to develop technical skills, and open new career horizons.

Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income, and Knowledge for Adolescents (BALIKA), a randomised control trial, spearheaded by the Population Council throughout Bangladesh over the last three years, has proven that such models can work in delaying child marriage.

Seventy-two safe girl-only BALIKA centres around Bangladesh provided computer-based e-learning support in English and maths -- the two subjects where Bangladeshi girl children lag behind their male peers.

With higher academic achievement also comes confidence, and the ability to identify and tackle problems. Some girls received awareness training on gender rights, negotiation, critical thinking, and decision-making, while a third group of girls received livelihoods training in areas such as mobile phone servicing, photography, and basic first aid.

This type of focused support is often not included in a standard educational curriculum, and is critical to help young women access a greater range of careers, and gain confidence in their own ability to be a part of mainstream activities and communications.

Mukta Rahman, a law student who also facilitates trainings at BALIKA centres, has noticed a marked shift in her students. Young girls would often be chided with remarks such as, “If you use the computer/phone too much, it will break,” and so would be prevented from extensively exploring available technologies.

She allows her students to freely use the laptop-based training modules and they have gained a confidence that has spread to multiple arenas of their lives.

Within the BALIKA participants, child marriage declined by 25%, school dropout rates declined, and the women’s attitudes toward gender equity improved.

As the girls in the program itself altered their mindsets, they have also helped change their parents’ and friends’ attitudes.

As phones and computers spread and are increasingly available to young girls even outside cities, it is possible to go even beyond what programs like BALIKA have achieved. An internet connection can enable peer-to-peer and peer-to-mentor support networks as well as e-counseling and e-learning programs.

Even though women are responsible for much of homestead farming and livestock rearing, they are unable to access agriculture extension services for advanced advice because of cultural restrictions on cross-gender interaction

Brick-and-mortar facilities focused on developing soft skills and providing supportive networks for girls are largely unavailable in rural Bangladeshi communities. These methods can be used to target cultural driving forces that limit women and help girls grow into change-makers in their communities.

Furthermore, if girls are not given the opportunity to interact with technology, the gender gap will be perpetuated and girls will be further disempowered.

To create the content for its technology-based targeted education modules, Population Council partnered with digital service-provider mPower Social. mPower has been working with development partners in Bangladesh to create a range of technology-based tools to revolutionise service delivery to poor and vulnerable communities in Bangladesh -- in areas such as health, wash, nutrition, livelihoods, and of course, education.

ICT-based education solutions have been developed to educate farmers, fishermen, health workers, and frontline staff of livestock programs across the country.

This is especially helpful for women who face disproportionately high barriers to access services supporting agriculture, health, and water and sanitation.

For example, even though women are responsible for much of homestead farming and livestock-rearing, they are unable to access agriculture extension services for advanced advice because of cultural restrictions on cross-gender interaction. Mobile-based extension services and diagnostic tools help reduce this barrier to knowledge acquisition.

Empowering girls by providing safe spaces and training in various sectors have the potential to create positive social change in entire communities.

Such efforts should be scaled up and spread out to remote, rural locations to bring women into the web.

If we are to be a true Digital Bangladesh where growth is pro-poor and gender inclusive, all youths, girls and boys, need to be given exposure and education in digital technology.

Raisa Chowdhury works for mPower Social, a social enterprise which designs and develops ICT-based solutions for the development sector.

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