gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D, SDGs

First, do no harm

As a gender and development practitioner who works specifically with girls and young women who are under 18 years of age, I get asked a lot about what i take into consideration when developing or advising others on the development of a program to empower girls in living poverty. My response? there are many things to take into account, but first and foremost, consider whether your intervention might put them at risk. if the answer is yes, and ofttimes it will be especially if the program is gender transformative, i.e. challenging existing power structures, then one must honestly consider whether the risk level is acceptable and what if anything can be put in place to mitigate this risk.

When we’re working on challenging gender norms and changing social behaviors, we are actively disrupting the status quo. and this can make some people resistant, uncomfortable, fearful or even violent. especially those who are in positions of power, and who might feel like this power is being directly or indirectly challenged. for instance,  a woman finding gainful employment or joining a savings groups which gives her control over her income might experience backlash from her spouse, children or the wider community.

Working with those who are under 18 requires that we consider their evolving capacity to handle such risks and the consequences to their lives. different age groups are at different cognitive and behavioral development stages and that’s a hugely important factor to consider. for instance, sex education curricula will not be the same for early adolescents (10/11-14) and late adolescents (14-18) who are most likely already sexually active.

Children and young people are also still considered legal wards of their families and care-takers, and so any intervention that involves them necessarily involves more than just one individual. this is an important point that often differentiates working with children and youth from working with adults. Any program that involves children and youth, also requires informed consent, which depending on the program can be a huge sticking point.

After establishing the unique parameters of working with under 18’s, we come to the issue of risk. how to define what’s too great a risk, and what can conceivably be seen in the context of our work to transform relations between the sexes, as the  acceptable cost of doing business?

To paraphrase from my favorite show – when it comes to risk in programming with girls, when is a risk too risky?

The first part of this answer is philosophical and ethical. From a child protection perspective you could say that ensuring every part of a program is ‘in the best interest of the child’ is paramount. From a social change perspective you could say that empowering children to speak out and affect change trumps an (ofttimes) paternalistic child protection approach which would deny the child a chance to exercise their agency. both of these need to be taken into consideration in terms of the goals of a program. for instance, if the goal is to change social norms by organizing a group of girl advocates who will speak out against early pregnancy in their communities, then one must weigh the risk of community backlash with the real possibility that this kind of work could save lives.

There’s no easy answer, and ‘doing no harm’ is above all our main objective, though we must weigh the likelihood and severity of risks in light of the potential transformative change our project could achieve. I would also add, again, that any intervention which seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms carries inherent risks. For me that is a given, however, there are clear ways in which these risks can be substantially reduced through effective programming, even if not eliminated altogether.

The second part of this answer is technical. Any self respecting organization will conduct risk analyses for programs, initiatives, events or engagements involving young people. this is the best space to evaluate the risk levels and agree on mitigation steps. an example of a risk assessment (for an event) will look something like this:

RA

Even visually, color coding a risk assessment can offer a good ‘at glance’ measure for deciding whether the risk levels are too high – if half the document is red, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Finally, I would also suggest that a good way of evaluating risk to young people or children can be done by including them in program design. working with children and young people is the best way to gain insights into their lived realities and ensure any intervention is tailored to address their experiences as they perceive them. this is especially relevant when working with adolescent girls, since they will experience different social pressures depending on cultural context and are best placed to gauge the reactions of their families, communities and peers to any actions they will take to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Keshet Bachan

 

 

 

 

Standard
development, gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D

Where dreams are made of…

There are only three female pilots in all of Kenya. Sharon’s mother is the one of them. She tells me about her life, and her family, in a very direct manner as we sit down for a short interview in Nairobi. I spent four days with Sharon, and a dozen other girls, as part of a workshop to build advocacy and campaigning skills. For the most part the girls came from low-income backgrounds, yet they were all part of national children’s assembly’s and had significant experience in speaking out on issues that are important for adolescent girls and boys. As is the case sometimes, the girls had the knowledge of the issues, and the passion to put them on the agenda, but lacked the tools to do so effectively.

the whole group

Sharon addresses the group

Sharon says she feels she has more opportunities than her mother had, despite her mother’s educational achievements and nontraditional job. Sharon insists things are getting better for girls, and there are more chances for her to ‘make it’ through education, especially higher education. I have heard these kinds of aspirations before from many girls all over the world; however, what took me by surprise is Sharon’s ambition (which was shared by a few other girls) to become a journalist. Her understanding of the role of the press in holding decision makers to account was a new (and very welcome) development from the usual ‘I want to be a teacher’ trope. I have no hard evidence of this, but I suspect new forms of media have brought the press closer to the people, and this has obviously been an inspiration to many. What more could a robust democracy hope for? still, girls expressed their concern in not knowing the best avenues to use for getting their voices heard by the right people.

The girls in the workshop knew that the main issue affecting girls in their community are concerned with personal safety and protection from violence. The sense was that girls were left unprotected by the authorities who are meant to ensure their safety, and despite legislation, weak implementation mechanisms, gender stereotypes and traditional norms, are conspiring against them. many felt that they know what the problem is – but not how to fix it.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the existing protective structures and laws, and then broke down the main influencers who could address this issue and raise it on a national agenda. We spent time developing good campaigning skills, including public speaking, media training, and thinking about how we deliver a message so it’s effective, and speaks to both hearts and minds.

everyone loves the flipcams

everyone loves the flipcams

All these skills will be put to the test later in the project for most girls. however, two girls were selected (through democratic elections) to represent the group in the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in NY. As we head to the city where dreams are made of I wonder what impact the girls will have on the people they meet, and whether the strength of their influence will come from these newly acquired skills, or will it be the authenticity of being an adolescent girl growing up in poverty and facing discrimination firsthand which gives them greater clout?

To be continued….

Standard
gender, gender gaps, girls rights, ICT4D, stereotyping, women in the labor force, Women's rights

Girls in ICT Day 2014!

To celebrate this year’s girls in ICT day, I’d like to focus on the intersection of adolescent girls (aged 10-19) and ICT4D. I recently gave a short presentation at Tulane University and you can find the presentation here.

There was quite a bit of interest in the ways in which mobile phone apps can inadvertently harm, rather than empower, girls and young women. I guess we have this notion that ‘access to tech = empowerment’. if only it were so simple! not to say that information communication technologies haven’t facilitated positive changes and will continue to do so. It’s just that treating them like some miracle cure is bound to end up in disappointment.

A while back I wrote about the ways in which mobile apps meant to protect women from violence can actually put them in harm’s way. essentially, understanding violence as ‘stranger danger’ is totally misleading, since most violence is committed by intimate partners and family members. The idea of a panic button that sends a signal to a family member if you’re harassed or attacked in the street sounds good. but it could all too easily be turned into a tool that allows for surveillance of young women, curtailing their freedom and mobility out of a misguided sense of ‘protection’. Certainly as a woman im much more interested in an app that will change attitudes, and allow me to dress and act in any way i see fit without garnering catcalls or even opening myself up to assault.

gender and girls rights

Another interesting topic that came up was control over ICTs. I made the point that so much of the technology we used is designed and engineered by men. the lack of female representation in the tech industries, and the poor number of young women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at secondary school and university levels, means women play a role as consumers of technology and little else. why is this the case? A slightly dated (but still wonderful) report from Cisco found the European girls (who, I’m sure we can all agree, are surrounded by technology all the time) tended to drop out of ICT studies around age 15.

The reasons:

  • lack of support  from role models
  • persistent stereotyped views that the sector is better suited to men
  • a lack of understanding about what ICT jobs entail
  • how easy or difficult they find the subject
  • girls don’t see ICT roles offering them chances to travel, to help others or to work independently.

the report concludes that from a business perspective this is a loss of talent. from a feminist perspective this is proof that socialization processes and entrenched forms of discrimination are keeping girls from ‘choosing’ to follow a techie career. and maybe if more women were involved in this field we would have better safety apps?

yes we can

This issue is a core part of what ‘girls in ICT’ day is about – encouraging girls to choose careers in tech. In the words of the 2014 flyer:

“The ICT sector remains a growing sector for employment and a key economic factor underpinning both national and international development in both developed and  developing countries. Many countries and regions are predicting a shortage of qualified staff with math, science, engineering and computing skills to meet the growing demand. At the same time, many companies are looking to increase the number of women in the sector. This means that highly qualified women in technical fields have significant opportunities available to them in both developed and developing countries. The need for qualified professionals in developing countries worldwide should come as no surprise, considering the rate of ICT growth in developing countries.Why don’t we try to reach even more girls and young women on International Girls in ICT Day 2014?”

there are numerous initiatives that are working to change the stereotypes around IT careers and encourage girls to pursue STEM studies. I’m optimistic about prospects, and believe more women are already making their mark. Certainly if Sheryl Sandberg’s latest book ‘Lean In’ and the foundation she opened to encourage girls to realize their potential are any indication, women are busily carving out a space at the top.

 

Keshet Bachan

 

Standard