Four years after the UN established October 11th as International Day of the Girl Child, education efforts around the globe are gaining traction and beginning to improve lives.
Amid the grazing cattle and goats of Tweefontein, a community roughly two-and-a-half hours northeast of Johannesburg, South Africa, 50 young women gather under the shade of a tent canopy to learn technology skills.
The fact that some of them live in crude dwellings without electricity to power tech devices is beside the point. These women realize that this type of education offers them the opportunity to improve their lives and one day break free from cycles of poverty and abuse.
This education program is just one of many launched in recent years as the rights of girls and women have come to the forefront of international attention, particularly since 2011, when the United Nations (UN) established October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child.
“There is a significant opportunity to advance social and economic empowerment by having a more direct focus on girls and women,” said Suzanne Fallender, director of Intel’s Global Women and Girls Initiative.
“There is also significant research to show how access to education and technology can support that empowerment and bring about positive results,” she said.
In short, when girls and women have access to education, everybody benefits.
Research shows that girls who go to school earn higher salaries, raise healthier families and have lower rates of HIV and maternal mortality. Because women tend to invest in their own communities, educating girls can help boost local (and even national) economies.
Unfortunately, more than 62 million girls worldwide don’t attend school.
Some can’t afford school fees. Some lack safe transportation to get there. Some are being raised in cultures that deem girls unworthy of an education.
To draw attention to this issue, First Lady Michelle Obama and Girl Rising, an Intel-sponsored campaign to support educating girls worldwide, launched the #62milliongirls campaign this month to raise awareness and demonstrate that education transforms lives.
While the percentage of primary-aged girls attending school has increased over the past 15 years, more progress needs to be made, especially for adolescent girls. This inspired the UN to make this year’s theme The Power of the Adolescent Girl.
Adolescence is a crucial time for girls, notes the UN. If given the right to a safe, educated and healthy life, adolescent girls hold the power to change the world as tomorrows workers, mothers, mentors, scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders.
Earlier this year, the White House launched the Let Girls Learn initiative, an effort to reduce the barriers that keep adolescent girls, in particular, from completing their education.
Voice of Change
As a young girl growing up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai enjoyed attending school and felt strongly that all children girls, included should have the right to an education.
The local Taliban leaders held the opposite view, even attacking girls’ schools in the area. Despite these intimidation tactics, Yousafzai refused to remain silent.
“There is a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or stand up,” she said.
In 2008, at the age of 11, Yousafzai gave a speech in Peshawar in which she demanded education for girls.
She continued to plead her case publicly, including a stint as a blogger for the BBC, gaining international acclaim as an education activist.
Incensed, the Taliban issued a death threat for the young girl, and on October, 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot her in the forehead on her way home from school.
Yousafzai survived the attack and has continued to be a vocal education advocate, even speaking before the UN. In 2014, Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest person ever to win the award.
To coincide with this years International Day of the Girl Child, a new documentary, He Named Me Malala, by Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim, is being released this week.
In a recent interview, Guggenheim said, “She became extraordinary because she made a really tough choice to risk her life for what she believed.”
And Yousafzai continues to stand up for her beliefs, calling others to action as well. “So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she said in her presentation to the UN. “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are the most powerful weapons.”
Jessica Orji, of Mushin, Nigeria, used to think computers were only for what she calls “yahoo boys” attempting to scam people out of money via the Internet. She never imagined herself touching a keyboard.
Along came Intel She Will Connect, a program designed to close the Internet gender gap in areas where the divide is greatest in this case, sub-Saharan Africa, where 43 percent fewer women have online access than men. The program helps women develop digital literacy skills and learn how they can use technology to enhance their lives.
“With the Internet, I can reach more people,” Orji, a hairdresser, said. “I can advertise my business online through my new Facebook account, and even create fliers. I can also budget my finances.”
And Orji is not alone.
Ntombifuthi Maggy Mkhonza, a 19-year-old under the tent canopy in Tweefontein, is pursuing her dream of opening a marriage counselor business after being the first ever in her family to finish high school.
Fallender said that more than 60,000 women have been trained in Intel She Will Connect face-to-face classes, in collaboration with global and local partner organizations, and many more through new mobile apps and online resources. To extend this reach, a new online learning platform is scheduled for release later this year.
The program has inspired thousands of adolescent girls in Africa, said Martha Alade, founder and president of Women in Technology in Nigeria.
“It has empowered them both socially and economically through technology, connecting them to priceless opportunities and resources as well as giving them the ‘voice’ to become confident change agents in their communities,” she said in an email.
Lilian Njogu, of The Youth Banner, a youth empowerment through entrepreneurship program in Kenya added, “Our partnership with Intel essentially means that The Youth Banner is putting digital literacy at the forefront so as to empower girls/women to reach their potential.”
The technology gender gap isn’t just overseas.
A 2013 White House report stated that, by 2020, there would be 1.4 million jobs in computer-related fields, yet not nearly enough computer science majors in colleges to fill those positions.
It is estimated that less than 29 percent of those positions will be filled by Americans, and less than 3 percent of that 29 percent will be filled by women.
This prompted Robin Houser Reynolds, a director, along with producer Staci Hartman, to create the new documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap. The film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, examined the “brogrammer phenomenon” and why a disproportionate number of males dominate the big tech companies.
As Water Isaacson, biographer and head of the Aspen Institute, points out in the documentary, this is especially surprising. Women were the pioneer programmers,” he said. “They’ve been written out of history, unfortunately.”
As evidence, back in the mid-20th century, Grace Hopper earned such monikers as The Queen of Code and Grandma COBOL for programming the first large-scale digital computer and for creating the first compiler.
The Code documentary not only explores how the technology gender gap evolved, but also suggests ways to solve it.
Educational programs are also popping up to address this need.
Girls Who Code, for example works to educate, inspire and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields, by partnering with public and private entities.
“I really think this is a Rosie the Riveter moment,” said Jocelyn Goldfein, a Facebook engineer, in the film. “The jobs are here, and we dont have the people to fill them.”
Hope for the Future
While there is still much work to do to empower girls and women around the globe, the attention of the UN and the efforts of governments and organizations worldwide are making a difference.
After a recent trip to Africa to meet some of the girls and women benefiting from the Intel She Will Connect program, Fallender said, “The thing that sticks with me is that there is so much energy right now. Yes, there are barriers, but for the most part, there is a lot of willingness to invest in girls and women, a lot of economic growth happening, a lot of hope.”
Photos contributed by Walden Kirsch and Suzanne Fallender.