By Grace Githaiga, Kenya Field Coordinator
April 28, 2016, marks the annual Girls in ICT Day, which is an initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Its goal is to raise global awareness around empowering and encouraging girls and young women to consider studies and careers in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This special day is an initiative backed by all ITU Member States. The theme of the celebration this year is "Expanding Horizons, Changing Attitudes."
The celebration is grounded in ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 70, which calls for mainstreaming gender equality through ICTs. Girls in ICT Day promotes this goal by encouraging ITU members, partners and all technical and development stakeholders to organize activities for girls and young women, introducing them to the multifaceted and empowering world of ICT. A portal of the day’s activities is available, and a live Twitter debate on issues relating to girls and ICT will be moderated by experts and hosted by Oxfam.
Girls in ICT Day follows the much more well-known “International Women’s Day,” which just occurred in March 2016. This event celebrates women’s achievements globally, and this year, specifically highlighted women leaders in technology as a way of inspiring young women to develop a career in technology, since the “sector has a shameful gender imbalance.” Only 17 percent of technology jobs globally are held by women. This unbalanced representation means that women may have little influence over technology design and use, as well as fewer opportunities to invent and benefit from the very technologies that underlie every sector.
In Africa, Kenya has been recognized as one of the countries that has made significant success in ICT development and sector growth. Many ICT products used globally come from Kenya. However, Rachael Alwala, Assistant Director at Kenya’s Regulator Communications Authority, feels that while we now have more girls and women involved in the sector as professionals or practitioners, we still do not have anywhere near gender parity. We need to ask ourselves if women are lacking visibility in the ICT sector, or are there not enough opportunities to showcase women’s successes in ICT? We are missing critical sex-disaggregated data in ICT positions to understand exactly where the gaps are. Additionally, we need to identify creative on-ramps into ICT degrees and careers that appeal to women – many women do not know just how useful ICT will be in any career they choose, and by having a strong technical background, they have created a force magnifier for their successes.
Girls in ICT Day festivities
Locally, Kenyan organizations are observing the day, in line with ITU’s call to stakeholders to organize activities aimed at creating awareness of the possibilities offered by ICTs for girls, and inspire confidence in them to pursue ICT studies and careers. AkiraChix, an organization that inspires and aims to develop a successful female technical workforce, will reach out to girls who have benefited from their mentorship programs in the past, and promote dialogs amongst women working in the tech industry, both locally and globally.
Judith Owigar, Operations Director at AkiraChix, has told us that the theme for 2016 is "Geek Girl;" AkiraChix will host “deep dive” practical sessions where participants will learn how to build a web page in a day, a mobile app in a day, a game in a day and delve into design thinking principles. There will also be other sessions on fundamentals of financial literacy and how to make the right career choice.
The Communications Authority lauds the efforts of many women-driven, women-focused initiatives like AkiraChix, LinuxChix, and Ushahidi among others that are engaging girls in coding, programming, blogging, and thinking about technical futures. However, much more needs to be done to encourage and also empower girls and women to participate in ICT. Digital Inclusion of girls and women – who are the key drivers of sustainable development in their communities – is critical if Kenya is to be a leader in all socioeconomic and political activities. ICT and women are both important driving forces in any country.
Dorcas Muthoni, a computer scientist and founder of OPENWORLD LTD, has mentored many young women in technology and says she is ready to support more girls as the results are goal-oriented. She opines that mentorship is key in this area. “We must create opportunities where we allow young people to listen and pick a connection point so that they make a choice on the next level. We need to raise awareness that women can undertake courses in computer science. This is one way for young women to grow.”
Lack of information on the practicality and relevance of computer science and ICT-related degrees has contributed to the low uptake of computing courses by girls. Some are talked out of taking such courses by their parents as it’s not viewed as a career path for girls. The lack of good information and understanding leads some parents to think that girls should only pursue such traditional careers as teaching and nursing – although both educational institutions and hospitals are at the forefront of the ICT revolution!
The Women and the Web Alliance has been training young rural women in ICT skills and entrepreneurship for two years in Matete, Kenya. Beatrice Owino, the Project Officer from partner organization World Vision, observes that this training - though small in scale - has restored self-esteem and confidence to a lot of young women who had dropped out of school. Some are now engaging in small-scale businesses and finding their voices in their families. One young woman secured herself a job in a local college where she offered training in basic ICT skills. Furthermore, she has registered for a degree course at Masinde Muliro University. “For such a young woman who even had challenges raising some of the little registration fee that we ask them to pay, ICTs are already contributing to her life dream”.
According to Dorcas Muthoni, it is important for young women to meet female role models in the field of ICT. This way, they will understand that there are opportunities in the ICT sector. She is backed by Rachael Alwala of the Communications Authority, who calls for more role model and mentorship programs that can close the gender gap that always seems to accompany the ICT gap.
And so as we celebrate Girls in ICT Day in 2016, let us remember that:
"We can make every day Girls in ICT day by working to expand the horizons of girls by exposing them to careers in science, technology, engineering and technology at an early age," - Judith Owigar of Akirachix.
“ …let we as Kenyans see how to make ICT real in the every day world of girls. This is the flight path for a progressive nation,”- Rachael Alwala, of the Communications Authority.
“Technology will bring a connection. Let us always work together and allow every effort to flow when it comes to mentoring girls in ICTs” - Dorcas Muthoni of OpenWorld Ltd.
And Beatrice Owino, the World Vision Women and the Web Project Officer, believes that if a girl is conversant in ICT skills, her family is transformed. “Such girls, if encouraged, end up rising in leadership positions even if it is at a family level.”