Adolescents and youth

Transforming lives of marginalized girls through new information and communication technologies

NEW YORK, US, 9 March 2012 – How can researchers and aid organizations use technology to make the voices of the most marginalized girls heard? How can adolescent girls in the hardest-to-reach rural communities use mobile phones and the Internet to gain critical life skills?

UNICEF reports on a panel discussion about empowering marginalized adolescent girls through information and communication technologies, at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York.  Watch in RealPlayer

 

The issue of integrating new technologies with communication strategies to empower and support the most vulnerable girls was at the center of a panel discussion that took place at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York last week. The event was organized during the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Breaking barriers with technology

Social, cultural and political systems prevent girls all over the world from fully achieving their rights. Over the last few years, agencies have been trying to overcome this formidable challenge through programming that uses Communication for Development (C4D) tools to empower girls in their own development.

Panelists outlined the tremendous potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to break down traditions and engage individuals, communities and decision-makers in a process of social transformation.

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© UNICEF VIDEO
Gannon Gillespie, Tostan Director of Strategic Development, talks about the opportunity to empower adolescents offered by new technologies, at a panel discussion in New York.

“The advent of mobile phones in rural communities, especially for women and girls, is a revolutionary opportunity, and it's one that we are not yet seizing,” said Gannon Gillespie, the Director of Strategic Development at Tostan. “There is an incredible amplification effect you can have through technology that allows more information and more opinions.”

Today, as technology evolves, agencies are not only able to reach people with knowledge and information but also bring them into the conversations, dialogues.

According to Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the New School for Public Engagement, adolescents are the lead adopters of new technology, new patterns of use and new ways of thinking, and it’s therefore crucial to focus on that group.

“Part of the challenge of understanding adolescents is that they are being shaped by their environment very rapidly at that age,” he said. “If you have a programme designed just for girls, then maybe you do want to involve their families and brothers in ways that might compliment the overall impact of the programme.”

Panelists agreed that in order to empower marginalized girls, it is important to engage families, communities and social networks, and to examine the norms and systems in which discrimination takes root.

Engaging girls and their communities

Development professionals were urged to design communication programmes with the aim of creating an environment where girls are encouraged to explore technology.

“Programmes should be centered around the local context, literacy capacity in the community, the number of people who do have mobile phones, language, whether you have electricity or solar power. There are so many different elements of programme design that need to start from the local level, from the community and that's really where you're going to know what technology is most appropriate for use in that particular case,” explained Linda Raftree, Social Media and New Technology Consultant at UNICEF.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF VIDEO
Linda Raftree, Social Media and New Technology Consultant at UNICEF, speaks about using Communication for Development (C4D) to support marginalized girls, at a panel discussion in New York.

The discussion also highlighted the need to blend new and existing technologies in the social, political and economic landscape.

"When ‘Equal Access’ first started, we were mostly using satellite radio, which was pretty innovative for its time and had a great reach. Now, we are using AM and FM radio stations as well as streaming online. We’ve got TV programming. We're also using SMS technology, and to combat some of the literacy issues, we are using IVR, which is an interactive voice response system so you can call into an automated system,” said Prairie Summer, Associate Director of Development & Director of Communications at Equal Access International. “So we’re linking all these pieces together to have the greatest level of interactivity and access possible.”

Ms. Raftree expressed concerns about keeping children safe. “As more adolescents in the developing world access online social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, there will be increasing tension around who is using them and to what end,” she said. “Struggles by human rights activists to keep mobile and Internet networks open and stop surveillance will meet efforts to improve online safety for children, track what individuals do online and with their phones and reduce cybercrime.”

Girls in the lead
Calling on donors to allow for experimentation in communication programmes, panelists spoke of long-term approached and perspectives.

“I think supporting small, decentralized exploratory projects over longer horizons might be my recommendation for certain kinds of programmes,” said Prof. Sawhney.

“The ICTs, when used properly, make things very interactive and very user-driven. But I think we also have to look at the technology itself and understand that it's only a tool. It's only as good as the content you can design for it,” said Ms. Summer. “Lastly, putting the technology in the hands of the girls...that's what we need to look at, letting the girls themselves innovate, letting the communities innovate.

“I think as they gain better understanding, they're going to start setting up their own SMS communities and networks to have dialogues within themselves and without us – and use it, and be empowered in their own way, and come up with their own solutions."


 

 

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