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

 

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gender, girls rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Leaning on an open door

This is what we (in the policy and advocacy biz) used to say when we were lobbying the government to do something they had already said they intended to do. And this is how I felt yesterday during a #shebuilds digital rally on gender and international development. I took part in two tweetchats that focused on girls’ empowerment. In both cases, most if not all of the tweeters were organizations and members of organizations that are already dedicated to working on girl issues.

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I couldn’t help but wonder: were we preaching to the choir?

Of course, I couldn’t keep this observation to myself so I tweeted it at the organizers who were hosting one of the tweetchats. The @girleffect replied quickly and asked for my suggestions about fixing this. However, I only had 140 characters at my disposal, so the answer was somewhat brief.

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However, I would like to take this opportunity to delve a little deeper into this issue.

Voice vs. power

There is something slightly misleading about taking part in digital ‘activism’. In this I’m going to refer to tweets, and likes, and comments on discussions boards, and well, anything that doesn’t require moving out of your comfort zone. I’m not talking about activities like hacktivism, which can be quite the game changers (re Steubenville). Most of the actions individual users are likely to take online involve supporting a cause they already believe in and sharing this cause with others. Now, for most organizations this is an important way of gaining popular support which should ideally lead to pressure on decision makers to change whatever cause folks are supporting. In real life, this is rarely the case. Certainly the ‘occupy’ movement failed spectacularly to achieve any of the changes they were advocating for so vocally. On the other hand, it seems that the Post 2015 consultations are being quite open in their wish to engage the public and organizations from the ‘global south’ in the consultations. However, a close look at the emerging recommendations that were submitted last year by the ‘high level panel’ to the Secretary General reveal that what made the cut were the issues that had the backing of the right people, not the most people.

For instance, one of the illustrative goals that made it onto the list is about ending child marriage (more about the issue here). Despite the fact that child marriage is simply a symptom of a much larger illness, i.e. institutionalized gender based discrimination and unequal power relations, that are both exacerbated by poverty, ignorance, and the chaos of crisis and war. You might point out that it’s an easy ask – and you’d be right. it’s SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. But is it the most urgent violation of women and girls’ rights? Is it tackling the underlying cause in a systematic way? or did it make it into the short list because the right people are backing it?

rockpaper

Let’s be honest – we all know decisions are eventually made by a handful of people walking down a drab corridor on the way to the cafeteria.

My point: there’s a gap between how we, the public, perceive the importance of our voice in supporting or opposing an issue through online activism, and the real process that goes into making decisions. We think we have power when we come together, but unless we’re actually represented in the places where decisions are made, there’s no chance of changing anything. To those in the higher echelons, it all seems like a lot of white noise.

Who’s listening?

So you might say – that’s terribly cynical, I think some voices are heard even if they are powerless. ok. so we get together and organize a tweetchat to talk about girl-issues, responses, and programmatic innovations, and who shows up? 1. the people who are already working in this area, have knowledge, practice and understanding that they can contribute. 2. organizations that are using this as a platform for making noise about themselves, their ideas, work, campaigns, slogans etc. If you’re Joe Blow, has any of this reached you or engaged you? highly unlikely. you’re not listening, because this is way outside your comfort zone.

What are we actually saying?

One of my issues with the discussion was that it seemed very stale. We’ve been using the same stats and arguments since the dawn of (wo)man.

snooze

In case you were wondering – that statistic has been around since 1994, which means it’s based on data from the 80’s. yeah. It’s as old as I am. surely with the amount of money being poured into the issue of girls in development, we could have found a little bit to spend on some honest research?

also, I’m wondering why we haven’t come up with a better argument than ‘throw money at the problem, and girls will reinvest it into a flawed economic system’? we all know that the level of messaging that has been adopted by ALL the organizations working on girl-issues, has toed an instrumentalist line that sees girls’ empowerment as a route towards economic growth. We have yet to come up with a formula that treats girls rights as a universal truth and a question of social justice, completely divorced of economic, political, or any other gains that might be derived from advancing gender equality.

Then why are you still here?

stickgood question. i’m mostly here because I see it as my duty as a freelance consultant unaffiliated with any one organization to poke a stick at those I love. this blog post is my way of supporting the work and campaigning and awareness raising efforts of many organizations and individuals that i follow faithfully on twitter, who have really good intentions, and who come up with great ideas for digital events (thunderclaps and rallies!).

I expect more – so I’m asking everyone to raise the bar. I know it’s possible. we just have to try a little harder!

Keshet Bachan

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gender, girls rights, Women's rights

Herstory

My guest blog on UN Women NY, for women’s history month! Here is the link to Herstory and below is the full original text:

Herstory

A couple days ago I bought a magazine on women’s running as I was boarding a long haul flight and I enjoy reading about women who take charge of their life and their body. This edition had a distinctly feminist article on women runners who bravely fought oppressive forces that told them women can’t, shouldn’t and aren’t physically built to run any distance, certainly not a marathon, and did it anyway. It told the story of a series of amazing women, beginning in Greece in the 19th century, who decided for themselves that they are strong enough to run and went at it despite serious backlash.

One woman wasn’t allowed into the Athens marathon so she ran beside it the entire way and finished in just over 4 hours. The article told the famous story of K.W. Switzer who signed up to the Boston Marathon in 1967 when women were not allowed to enter. The officials later discovered that K stood for Katherine and tried to physically remove her from the race.

She was protected by her boyfriend and a number of male runners who eventually ran beside her the entire distance to ensure the Boston Marathon officials couldn’t catch her again. Finally, in 1972 women were allowed to compete and Switzer went on to win 1st place in the 1974 NY marathon.

The article told the story of Paula Radcliffe who resumed her training schedule 12 days after giving birth to her daughter and won the NY marathon 10 months later.  The list of female athletes who broke through barriers and stood fast against stereotypes, stigma and patriarchy goes on.

These stories are important ones and should be told and retold, lest we forget that what women have today, the right to vote, the right to run, the right to receive an education, have been hard won. It’s even more important in light of the fact that in many places in the world, women are still struggling to gain even the most basic rights, such as in Saudi Arabia where they aren’t allowed to drive. And that in some places women are still viewed as commodities, to be bought and sold at the whim of their male family members, such as in Afghanistan which boasts one of the highest levels of child marriage in the world.  And it’s important because in some places girls and young women are still struggling to protect their own bodies from an excision blade. And it’s important because of girls like Malala Yousefzai from Pakistan who stood up for her right to receive an education and was consequently brutally shot in the head. She is the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

For these reasons and more, we choose to celebrate women’s history month. However, this should not be viewed as a walk down memory lane, but as a living breathing testament to the struggle we are still facing to gain our rightful place beside those who have power over our bodies and over our choices. This struggle for equality, respect and protection goes on all the time, everywhere in the world, and we would do well to learn from the stories of brave women and girls who wouldn’t’ take no for an answer.

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