This year's International Day of the Girl theme, Digital Generation, Our Generation, celebrates the potential of digital technologies while calling for the inclusion of all girls in accessing technology. The digital revolution will not be realized if girls without access to digital solutions are left behind. For years, advocates of technology for development have been repeating the mantra that technology is not a panacea. Yet in racing to connect, catch up, and create greater access, we ignore at our own peril the inconsistent or non-existent household- and community-level access girls have to technologies. While digital solutions are available and evolving all the time, they should be accompanied by hybrid methods which include new ways to use analog technologies, so that existing local resources are reimagined and redistributed in ways that support more girls learning.
If we want to ensure equal access to technology to close the gender digital divide, these on-the-ground realities are critical to decision-making and planning. To be clear, the global COVID-19 pandemic amplified digital platforms for learning, training, and connecting, but at the same time some 2.2 billion young people below the age of 25 still do not have internet access at home. Girls do not have equal access to or equal ownership of phones or tablets in the home, and they lack opportunities to gain the digital literacy, which would enable them to grow their own learning, expand their information sources, or communicate with others. The gender digital divide has increased in recent years, with only 15% of women in lower- and middle- income countries using the internet. Globally, girls have significantly less access to the internet, tablets, mobile phones, radio, and television than boys, further exacerbated by household poverty levels, geography, disability, and competing social cultural norms. An estimated 52% of girls have to borrow a mobile phone if they want access compared to 28% of boys. These technological gender gaps are most often due to girls and women lacking access, skills, familiarity with tools, representation and participation in STEM, and leadership and resource support to become champions within the technology sector.
The Coalition for Adolescent Girls (CAG), which is made up of 76 organizations around the world that work with and for girls, has seen the effectiveness of hybrid approaches to technology solutions firsthand. Several of its members focus on strengthening the enabling environments that will reach and retain girls as participants in digital education, health and wellbeing interventions, and youth development opportunities that leverage existing local resources that are fit-for-purpose.
At AMPLIFY Girls, a CAG member based in Kenya, recent research in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda demonstrates that for girls, lack of access to remote virtual learning tools and resources is a clear barrier to staying in or returning to school. Girls do not have regular use of remote learning devices, such as radios, television, smart phones, or computers to participate in virtual classrooms. When directly asked about government-sponsored radio or television lessons, girls said that they did not participate because there was no radio or TV at home. For those that did have a radio or TV at home, a male family member had priority access and they were burdened regularly with household chores.
African organizations are often overlooked as innovators in the technology space, yet are providing contextually relevant services to close the gender digital divide. AkiraChix in Kenya recruits young women from the most remote communities in eastern Africa and invests in year-long training to help them successfully launch their careers in technology. Jifundishe runs an independent study program that young mothers, historically banned from returning to school in Tanzania, can access to complete both secondary and tertiary education through self-paced learning.
In the Philippines, another CAG member, Education Development Center (EDC), conducted early assessments on gendered use and access of technologies only to learn that few girls own computers or tablets in rural areas in particular, making it difficult to access virtual education and training offerings. Skills development training and materials in those contexts, therefore, have been disseminated through a blended learning approach comprising paper-based, self-directed curriculum for home-based learning, reinforced by interactive audio instruction and home visits by peer leaders and mentors (among these, women).
EDC also utilizes interactive audio instruction and blended learning at-scale to strengthen access and learning of soft skills, literacy and work readiness-this has been particularly valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, where in-person learning has come to a standstill. In Uganda, EDC has delivered a combination of interactive audio instruction and small group-based home learning activities, including HIV/GBV prevention and life skills curriculum to reinforce household protection messages and mitigate the high risks faced by girls during the pandemic. Radio remains an accessible and low-cost analog method for achieving learning and health messaging at scale.
Research by CAG members Women Deliver and Girl Effect in India, Malawi, and Rwanda show that digital technologies also hold promise for increasing access to sexual and reproductive health information for girls, but this increased information alone is not enough to produce improved health outcomes. While girls may access health information online, girls are wary of acting on that information because they are unsure of its validity and accuracy, as well as fear social stigma. Linking online information to appropriate youth-friendly medical and community services allows girls to verify that information and seek care.
As these examples and research demonstrate, hybrid digital and analog solutions are not only the most inclusive, but also lead to improved learning and development outcomes, especially for girls. Indeed, digital access is critical to development and innovation. But we should not throw any technology - old or new - at a challenge without ensuring that girls and boys return to school, and have equal access to the content, the tools, and the skilled and knowledgeable teachers and mentors who are vital to sustained uptake and learning outcomes.
On this International Day of the Girl, we call for the broadest access possible to critical health information and education, and we emphasize the importance of contextual relevance in choosing what tools - whether analog or digital - are most effective in achieving impact. If we do this, we create greater opportunities for girls to engage with learning first and then technologies, which ultimately will strengthen multiple development outcomes.
The authors are Margaret Butler of AMPLIFY Girls, Julia Fan of Women Deliver, and Amy West of Education Development Center. Amplify Girls, Education Development Center, and Women Deliver are active members in the Coalition for Adolescent Girls (CAG), a member-led and driven organization dedicated to supporting, investing in, and improving the lives of adolescent girls.