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Barriers to girls’ economic opportunities

As I wrote yesterday, I attended Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference last week on “Breakthroughs in Youth Enterprise, Workforce Development, Financial Services and Livelihoods”

Messages I took away included:

  • seeing youth as assets, not problems
  • the need for specialized and focused approaches to support girls
  • girls and technology – gaps and bridges
  • the importance of ‘soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’

The Adolescent Girls and Young Women track started from the reality that girls face barriers to economic empowerment, but that there are some specific things that can be done to support them and things girls themselves can do to be more successful. Some k-nowledge that got dropped:

Barriers girls face to gaining employment. Barbara Chilangwa from CAMFED (and former Secretary of Education in Zambia) commented that barriers include girls’ lack of power and male domination; the fact that money is controlled by men, meaning women don’t have an opportunity to own anything; girls not attending school, and early marriage. “Girls’ education must be at the core of any country that wants to develop,” she said.

What do girls say? The team from BRAC in Tanzania presented their holistic life skills and job training program with adolescent girls. As a key step in their program, they consulted with girls on what they consider “the good life” and what challenges they face in trying to reach it. (See “Seeing youth as assets” – it’s important to involve young people in program design and decisions).

The girls considered the good life to include (in this order): health, education, work, house, good husband, loving family, good morals, peace in the family, peace in the community, cooperation and the absence of poverty.

The challenges to the good life that the girls noted were: early pregnancy; early marriage; bride price; gender discrimination; HIV and STIs; dropping out of school; alcohol and drugs; a complex family situation; poverty; a limited voice in the family; limited participation in the community; violence, rape or prostitution; limited opportunities for income generation and lack of opportunity for receiving training and loans.

Is 15 too late for girls? Judith Bruce from the Population Council focused on the message that once a girl hits puberty, she must fight for control of her own body, her sexuality, her fertility and her labor. “Most youth policies begin at 15, and this is 5 years too late for girls,” she said. “We need to invest in late childhood [starting at age 10], which is the critical period for girls.” Girls face intensified social exclusion during adolescent as their movement and mobility is restricted by family and community, Bruce said. In addition, there is a weak link between secondary school completion and earning for girls. “It’s difficult for females to control their earnings and other assets,” she noted. “This is something boys and men don’t have to deal with.” On top of that, there is a disproportionate dependency burden on females in both time and income.

Bruce said that the girls who are participating in financial services and different programs are those who have “survived girlhood,” overcoming a number of obstacles in order to enter into these programs. But what about the girls that don’t get into the programs that agencies design and develop, she wondered. We need to build social capital early, help girls develop friendship networks, provide regular safe spaces where girls can meet, provide female mentors, ensure they have personal documentation and safety nets, and support age-graded, gender and context specific financial literacy. “All girls should have small emergency savings and be introduced to goal-oriented savings,” she said. “This work is hard and costly and it matters who we invest in and work with.” She advocated that 12-year-old girls should the focus of economic opportunity programs.

Formal or informal? Mary Hallward-Driemeier from the World Bank gave some fascinating insight into gender inequities and where they occur. (I’m not sure which exact studies she was working from but perhaps start here or here). The Bank takes a holistic approach to economic opportunities, looking at human capital (education, training); access to assets (financial and physical); an enabling environment (cultural, social, business) and motivation (drive, connections, empowerment). In this context, gender and youth can matter, she said, both directly (girls and women face constraints because they are female and young) and indirectly (due to the nature of where young women are disproportionately active economically.

Once informal, always informal. Hallward-Driemeier brought out that the constraints that young women face are quite often based on the activities that they tend to go into. Small, informal sectors tend to be where women are working, and there is not much difference between genders within the sector, however more women end up in the informal sector, which is more challenging than the formal sector. So, it’s not about girls’ and women’s participation per se, it’s about helping girls and women move into higher value added activities. “There are not an awful lot of transitions. Once you are in a small, informal enterprise, it’s not likely that you will move out of this sector. This is why youth opportunities are critical to what girls will do with their futures.”

“Sextortion” was a new word I learned. It refers to the sexual harassment that girls and women often face when trying to get a job, eg., “I’ll give you a job but you must provide sexual favors if you want it.” Statistics seem to show that “sextortion” occurs more often in formal employment situations (in the context of HIV/AIDS work I’ve heard that this happens quite a bit in the informal sector also, though I have no studies to back this up). A woman may not be able to report this because her husband or family will no longer allow her to work, it can cause trouble for her, she can be blamed, she can be shamed or stigmatized by the community. A video shown by Youth Build/Catholic Relief Services in an unrelated session the following day included a concrete case of ‘sextortion’. The young Salvadoran woman featured in the video explained that she had studied auto mechanics and was unable to find a job. At the most recent interview she went to, she would have been required to sleep with the manager, so she declined it.

Discriminatory laws that make girls and women vulnerable. Another point that Hallward-Driemeier brought up was that in certain countries, customary and religious law is the formal constitutionally recognized law even though it is discriminatory against women. Marriage, land, property and inheritance are exempt from nondiscrimination and there is no recourse in most cases. She showed some very interesting graphics comparing head of household laws in low versus middle-income countries, and there is not much difference in terms of customary law across countries – discrimination against women is present in both.

Hallward-Driemeier shared some life decisions that can affect a woman’s ability to pursue opportunities or render her less or more vulnerable including:

  • Registering her marriage: legal rights and protections can vary based on whether a marriage is formally recognized by the state or not.
  • Her choice of marital property regime: Separate or community property have different implications for the control of property within marriage and the division of property in the case of divorce or inheritance.
  • Registering property jointly with her spouse: This can protect a woman if the marriage ends.
  • Registering her business in her own name:  So that she can have control as well as ownership of it.
  • Writing a will and having her husband write one too: So that she is legally protected in terms of land ownership, property, custody of children, etc.
It’s clear that the challenges and barriers that women girls face are in many cases much higher than those that men and boys face, but as Bruce said in her comments:  ”Girls are such performers!”  In the face of great obstacles, when given an opportunity, girls and young women most certainly can overcome them and shine.

Organizational barriers to ICT4D

I was chatting with a friend of mine yesterday evening on Facebook. She contacted me because she was very interested in participating in the TechChange courses that I wrote about in my last blog post.

Her first question – ‘Are the courses only available in English.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but TechChange is just getting started. It’s quite possible that in the future they could offer courses in other languages.’

‘OK,’ said my friend, ‘that’s great. We’ll be waiting for that.’

Now, my friend speaks enough English that she could get something out of these courses, but there are other factors that seemed to her even more difficult to surmount. And the sad thing is that these other factors are internal factors.

1) On-line purchasing

‘Our problem with registering for the courses,’ said my friend, ‘is that they cost $250/$350….’

Hm, I thought, ‘So the cost is too high?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘the cost is fine. But here [at our organization] we are not allowed to purchase anything online. Purchasing on-line is considered EXTREME POSSIBILITY FOR FRAUD.’ Then she laughed ‘jajajaja.’ I imagine it was a bitter and frustrated laugh.

So here my friend has a budget and great interest in being trained, but can’t sign up because at her organization, they are not allowed to make on-line purchases.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to send an email or something to vet the organization?’

‘Nope,’ she said. ‘It’s just their policy. You can’t purchase on-line. Not even if it’s much cheaper, it’s exactly what you want and need, and it’s not available in your country.’

2) Management buy-in

‘Oh,’ I continued. ‘Can you use your own credit card and then get the organization to reimburse you?’

‘Ay,’ my friend said. ‘No one will support us with that, especially an on-line course of this type of thing that they have never heard about and they don’t understand. These courses would be just what we need for some of our staff who are very interested in getting trained up to use some of these new tools. But it’s so hard to get management to see the utility of this.’

Then my friend wrote in all capitals ‘LINDA, YOU KNOW THIS. PLEASE FIND A WAY TO COME AND HELP US WITH ICTS! We need to know this and no one in our management believes it’s useful to our work.’

She continued, ‘We’re only at the beginning of this. We (staff) know only the very basics. We have funds for training but we can’t get anyone to see that this [ICTs] is a priority. Ay, it’s all very complex.’

3) Blocking social media sites

We kept chatting. She said ‘oh, ja ja, and please write your blog in other languages so we can share it around. We need to be updated on these things. At least we are allowed to access blogs.’

‘I will try…’ I said.

‘Do you know,’ she said ‘We can’t access any social media sites from the office. They are all blocked. We have a YouTube channel but none of us can watch it at the office. Someone created a Twitter account but all staff are blocked from Twitter and Facebook at the office. Not even our managers can access it. If we want to see anything we have to go to an Internet cafe or to have Internet at home.’

Argh.

I understand that there are risks to purchasing on-line, and I understand that some staff might abuse social media if they are free to use at work, and I understand that there are bandwidth issues in some countries, but this conversation made me very sad.

My friend works at a decent-sized organization and I assume this must be the policy across the organization. I wonder if the organization has considered that its policies are cutting into its own ability to advance its own cause and its own development work in today’s world.


Girls in rural Cameroon talk about ICTs

The 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women is taking place this week in New York City, with the core theme of: “Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.”

Some of the girls that we’re working with in our programs are participating, including Fabiola and Shira from Cameroon. I met them both last July when we worked together on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) project. The YETAM coordinator in Cameroon, Judith Nkie, is also attending the CSW as the girls’ chaperone. She certainly also has a lot to contribute on girls, women and ICTs. Judith once said to me “This project is a catalyst in my body.” Judith is awesome.

Girls from the YETAM project worked to prepare the interviews, film and videos below. Each girl interviews another girl from the community about the role of ICTs in their lives. The videos are worth watching as the questions and the responses of the girls are very insightful.

The interviewee in the first video says ICTs help you find out what is happening around the world. She comments that she found out about what just happened in Egypt (the February revolution) because of ICTs. Some of the other things I found most interesting in the videos are:

  • The girls’ recognition of the importance of information for making good decisions
  • The technologies that girls have most access to (mobile phone!)
  • The first time the girls encountered a mobile phone (a few years ago, at a local call box for one, and via an uncle who brought one back from travels for the other)
  • Why it is hard for girls to use ICTs in the community (lack of ICT devices, cost, parents don’t allow girls to learn about ICTs, at school the computers are few – you will see at least 20 persons per computer – and half are broken, the boys are very powerful and they fight us to occupy the computers, girls’ illiteracy, girls don’t continue in school)
  • How often the girls use ICTs (mobiles are used every day, there is only one place to access Internet in the community)
  • What they like most about ICTs (ICTs help me to know what is happening in other countries, I came to know about what happened 2 days ago in Egypt via communication technologies, many youth have been able to be employed through their mobile phones)
  • What they like the least about mobile phones and Internet (scamming, its easy to tell lies by mobile)
  • How can ICTs be helpful to girls (in my community a girl was able to borrow a phone from a friend to report that she was to be married at the age of 12, and the marriage was stopped)
  • Can ICTs be used to hurt girls? (yes, the girls who can afford their own mobile phones are those who are wealthy, when the poor girls see the wealthy girls with their phones, they go into competition, they can go into prostitution to have money to get a phone; but on the other side, girls are also self-employed through the phones, so the mobile phone hurts but it also helps girls)
  • How the communities use the Internet to sell their products (most people in the community use ICTs to communicate to find buyers for their products)
  • What girls would like parents, community leaders and government to do to regarding ICTs (improve our access to ICTs, bring in programs and projects that can support youths to use ICTs and learn to use them better, educate parents to help them to see that girls also should be allowed to access this type of training and technology)
  • What hurts most about this ICT thing (when those who are really privileged and who can use the Internet don’t put their talents and privileges to good use, they go there to scam, to do robbery, not to do good; if these youth have the time and this privilege they should not do harm but they should do good.)
Kirby, one of the girls from the US, edited together portions of the videos above with video footage from the rest of the girls in the group, and they used the video to kick off their ‘Girl Led Side Event today. The turnout was great. They will continue throughout the rest of the week getting their ideas and messages across in different events and panels. You can follow their thoughts and impressions on the Plan Youth Tumblr or by following @plan_youth on Twitter. My colleague @KeshetBachan is also blogging from the CSW at the Girls Report blog.

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