Bridging the digital divide to empower girls -Express Tribune

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As a social entrepreneur previously heading a microfinance institution, Sadaffe Abid ventured into the world of tech with the goal of economic empowerment and inclusion for women. She founded Circle in 2014, an organisation encouraging women in tech ventures.

Sadaffe believes that Internet and digital literacy are basic human rights today and saw the gender gap in tech with an increasing number of girls in Pakistan who had no access to tech education. That’s when she introduced ‘Tech Karo’, which teaches girls from underprivileged backgrounds to code. Tech Karo has now produced more than 300 graduates who are working in the tech industry as freelance or full-time jobs.

Sadaffe also reaches out to women from underserved communities who have home-based enterprises, teaching them to use smartphones for checking WhatsApp message for business, email ids, Instagram, Facebook, Google Maps, etc. Most women report increased income post-training.

Increasingly across Asia and the Pacific, innovative initiatives like these are opening up new opportunities to empower women and girls with knowledge, support and services and help them lead safe, productive, fulfilling lives.

CodeGirls Pakistan is a similar, female-only coding bootcamp working towards achieving gender balance in the tech industry as well as in the economy, helping achieve three main Sustainable Development Goals. CodeGirls started as a passion project and brainchild of Shamim Rajani, Faiza Yousuf, and Hasnain Walji and their organisations, ConsultNet Corporation, WomenInTechPK, and United Global Initiative. CodeGirls has more than 700 students graduated from its training programme with over 110 industry placements, in a period of less than 3 years.

This is timelier than ever, since the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on services that help protect girls against child marriage and gender-based violence. This is alarming for regions like South Asia, where over half of girls are married before the age of 18 — robbing them of their childhood, curbing their education, and putting their health and safety at risk.

According to the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (PDHS), in 2017-18, about 18.3% of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18. Projections warning of a significant pandemic-related spike in these human rights violations are increasingly corroborated by anecdotal evidence and data from service providers.

Technological innovations have been a source of hope and security for many girls and young women, enabling them to continue learning and seek help if they are at risk of child marriage or gender-based violence.

But not all girls and young women have access to digital technology and the opportunities it offers to improve their lives. Making sure no girl is left behind because she is poor, illiterate or too young requires deliberate planning and action on the part of governments and a range of partners including the private sector.

Disparities in access to technology are actually rising — widening the chasms both between boys’ and girls’ ability to thrive, and between privileged and disadvantaged communities.

As governments and the private sector ramp up investments in digital technology to better reach young people, we must make concerted efforts to bridge gender and socio-economic digital divides.

Use of digital technology to gain access to accurate and real time statistics for evidence-based decision-making is another major area that is being explored by Unicef to achieve gender equity in registration of births of girls and boys in Pakistan.

In Punjab, Unicef in partnership with the Local Government and Community Development Department (LGCDD), Telenor and FCDO (UK Aid) has scaled up a digital online application to register births of girls and boys across the 36 districts ensuring that no one is left behind.

UNFPA Pakistan, in partnership with Punjab Safe Cities Authorities, has developed Women Safety App which is popular among young women and girls studying in colleges. This smart app is an innovative solution to the challenges of mobility and violence facing women and girls as it is equipped with all essential features to help them seek help and receive immediate response from teams at their precise location in case of an emergency. As the incidences of gender-based violence surged during lockdown and mobility restrictions, UNFPA collaborated with Rozan to provide psych-social support, information and referrals to survivors of violence through a toll-free telephone helpline. The helpline was reached by many young girls for support.

Governments and partners, including the private sector, must strengthen digital literacy and infrastructure across the region, with a focus on adolescent girls and underserved communities.

This means ensuring that all adolescent girls can learn even when physically attending schools is not possible — by making sure they have the devices, platforms, materials and support they need. This is especially important in places with high rates of child marriage, as keeping girls in school substantially reduces the likelihood they will marry early.

A UNFPA study finds that limited opportunities for education and employment along with poverty and socio-cultural narratives reinforce child marriage customs for girls. Child marriage usually disrupts their education and often violates their human rights. Married adolescent girls often find it difficult to access reproductive health services.

In online school settings, authorities need to monitor attendance records and implement strategies to ensure that both boys and girls, including those from disadvantaged families, have equal access to education. And, alternative safe modes of learning should be offered where online access is unavailable.

Donors, the private sector, governments, UN agencies and civil society should invest more in digital innovations to create online spaces for adolescents, especially girls, to share their experiences and concerns with peers and professionals and receive information and support in a safe virtual space.

But as more evidence from the Asia-Pacific region emerges on what has worked amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become clear that investing in technology alone is not enough. Approaches that combine in-person interactions, traditional media like radio, and diverse digital platforms are needed to fully engage girls and young people, especially in remote or disadvantaged communities.

On this International Day of the Girl Child celebrated on October 11, as we contemplate a post-Covid region and world, we have the opportunity to build on what we’ve learned during the pandemic about the value of digital technology while also addressing the gaps that divide us even further.

We must not only commit, but also take concrete actions to bridge gender and socio-economic digital divides so technology advances rights, choices and opportunities for all.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2021.