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Ending gender digital divide: What more can we do for girls?

On Monday, Uganda joined the world in commemorating the International Day of The Child under the theme, “Digital generation, Our generation.” Representing United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the celebrations, Munir Safieldin said when COVID-19 necessitated unprecedented public health measures such as frequent lockdowns and closure of schools and businesses, societies with advanced digital technology were able to ensure the continuity of learning and economic productivity.

He called on every stakeholder to work towards ensuring that girls, especially in developing countries, can reap the benefits of the technological revolution that has reshaped the life of every human being.  

Digital technologies have advanced more rapidly than any innovation in our history; reaching around 50 per cent of the developing world’s population in only two decades and transforming societies. In 2021, we are surrounded by evidence of the transformative power of digital technology. Through our digital gadgets, we enjoy more connectivity, better access to information, and increased access to services in every industry.  

While many communities are prospering and advancing towards sustainable livelihoods, through technology, the communities that have no access to digital technologies are falling even further behind. 

The difference between the haves and have nots in terms of access to digital services is referred to as the “The digital divide.” The categories of people who are being left behind in the digital revolution are the poor, women and the disabled. 

In 2020, The Wide Web Foundation (WWF) reported that among four countries included in the survey of women’s online experiences, Uganda had the largest gender digital divide. With an internet penetration standing at Uganda 26.2 per cent as of January 2021, WWF notes that 43 per cent of men are more likely to be online than Ugandan women.

Sonal Kadchha, the founder of Educating The Children (ETC) says, “What motivates me to train girls & women is the gratitude I have for my education, and how it has enabled me to have options in my life. Also, if you look at key research, it shows that educating a girl is the quickest route to economic prosperity for a community. Young women are more likely to invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families.” 

Set up in 2010, ETC started focusing on digital skills in 2019, following the realization that these skills were required by existing employers, and are essential for the future of work.  

Kadchha says the equality they have worked hard to promote threatens to be undone by the pandemic, particularly when it comes to jobs such as computer programming.  “Even though the demand for digital skills in jobs is going up, the gender digital divide is actually increasing and getting worse,” she says. 

Regardless of this setback, ETC has helped over 1000 girls in Kenya while in Uganda they have run several job-readiness boot camps that focus on digital skills and coding. The boot camp called Code Queen has brought in 150 young women into the program over two years. The demand, Sonal says, is still huge as they have 400 applications to date. “These young women want to learn – there is so much passion and potential talent,” she says. 

Code Queen serves the neediest girls yet the challenge of empowering girls who have no access to laptops and data stands in the way. Private sector players are now on the lookout for internship partnerships with companies and organizations. This not only benefits the graduate with the largest hurdle on their curriculum vitae- real work experience, but also the business partner too.  

Vanessa Kenzie, a 15-year-old secondary school student doing programming classes with Mindset Coders said, “This programming has introduced me to many parts of the technical world. “My intellectual understanding of the internet is growing from the exercises that require us to make research on google.” 

Commenting on the digital gender divide, she says programming seems like something only boys do. Given her newfound knowledge now, she urges girls to dedicate their time to acquiring the different tech skills.  While she is looking at a future career in architecture, Kenzie feels that her skills are going to come in handy when she needs to do build websites and applications for companies. 

The agenda of empowering girls through digital skilling has been at the front line of The Innovation Village’s efforts.

In a partnership with The Mastercard Foundation, The Innovation Village through its programs and various partnerships aims to enable 300,000 Ugandan youths to find dignified work by 2030. At the core of its work is the interest to bridge the gender inequality gap, by having 70 per cent of women benefiting from each program geared towards youth capacity building. 

To this end, The Innovation Village has provided thousands of young women with digital skills like programming and social media marketing through its skilling academy UPSKILL and the Tech and Data Department. In fact, in July this year, several young women graduated from the Code Queen Boot camp organized in partnership with The Innovation Village. These efforts have resulted in young women unlocking new careers or starting their businesses.

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