Empowering girls through coding - UNESCO’s Africa Code Week cooperation

16/12/2019
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UNESCO’s YouthMobile programme allowed grassroots organizations in Africa Code Week 2019 and provide seminal training in coding and ICT skills to girls and boys across the African continent. 70% of participants being girls, the project aimed to increase the representation of women in Africa Code Week by offering specific training opportunities. Two leading members of organizations recipient of the grant, expand upon the emphasis of the project on gender equality.

“One of the issues is the lack of awareness. Girls do not know what coding is. They do know what the future will be like if they studied, say, medicine, but they do not know what the IT path would look like. The other problem that I have seen is the lack of confidence, that they see tech as a field for boys. We try to create a safe space for girls where they can experiment and be creative without being judged. What happened during Africa Code Week is remarkable, you see girls happy to teach boys what they have learned. Normally it is the other way around” tells Masresha Beniamin. The organization she founded, OmniTech, was one of the thirteen organizations that received the seed grant organized by the UNESCO YouthMobile Initiative within the framework of Africa Code Week.

Africa Code Week is the single biggest coding event worldwide. Initiated by SAP in 2015, the event aims to introduce to coding boys and girls across the African continent to enable them with the 21st century skills they need to navigate and prosper in the digital age. As Masresha Beniamin also says, “Coding is not just about learning a new programming language. It teaches kids problem-solving skills that are necessary in the 4th industrial revolution”. The exercise, taking place yearly in October, touches upon millions of young students. UNESCO is a longtime partner of the activity, which aligns with its programmes on creating inclusive knowledge societies and information and digital literacy.

For the first time, UNESCO YouthMobile supported directly local organizations in the implementation of activities which would reach out to thousands of girls. Two possible activities were supported: the training of girls and the training of trainers. Overall, the exercise provided valuable ICT skills to nearly 10,000 people, with more than 6200 girls, almost 3000 boys and an additional 674 trainers trained. The effectiveness of this specific activity relied upon the implementation capacity of passionate advocacy organizations, which were able to optimize the budget envelop of the grant: the overall investment per student was 2.5 USD. These results were only possible thanks to the network of UNESCO field offices, mobilized to ensure the quality of trainings, with eight UNESCO Field Offices participating.

By directly empowering girls, UNESCO aims to redress the absence of women from the IT field in the continent. Several studies, including the UN-led EQUALS report, have well identified the unbalanced gender participation in the digital field and expanded upon the causes and effect of the gender digital divide. The EQUALS report also highlights that the African continent is the one with the lowest percentage of women employees in this field: only 18%. That echoes Masresha Beniamin’s concerns on the lack of information and understanding of girls with respect to the enabling power of digital tools.

Similarly, Chenai Tsorayi also highlights a flagrant lack of awareness and negative gender norms which penalize women on the current labor market and preclude them from valuable job opportunities:

“Zimbabwe has a very high unemployment rate, and the IT field is one of the few adding jobs on the market. However, now girls are excluded from it. When we asked to the 60 girls, at the beginning of our training, what was coding, only five had vaguely heard of it. There is an issue with access: access to actual devices, as computers and phones, but also access to the internet: Zimbabwe is the second most expensive country in the world to access the internet. There are also cultural barriers that prescribe that women should go into specific careers, girls are not encouraged to go into IT where the new jobs are.”

Chenai Tsorayi is Programme Officer at Nduna Girls, another organization recipient the Seed Grants project, based in Zimbabwe. Nduna Girls conducted the trainings in an old container which the organization converted into a tech center, in partnership with Renewal Fellowship. Nduna Girls trained a total of 60 girls. Further, twenty of them were deaf, underscoring the role that ICT can play to empower people with disabilities, as other UNESCO programmes promote.

Both Masresha and Chenai report that, contrary to common expectations, introducing young girls to coding is not difficult, provided that the training is adapted to the age group. Nduna girls, for example, used micro:bit computers to teach coding and robotics, in a fun and engaging way. Masresha, on the other hand, employed Scratch, an open source tool developed at M.I.T. and tailored to young audiences.

Initiatives such as Africa Code Week lead the way in promoting coding and digital skills for young boys and girls, with a view to trigger sustainable and systemic impacts that can only be achieved by a thoroughly inclusion of coding in national curricula and teachers equipped with adequate ICT competences. Through projects as the Seed Grants project, UNESCO wish to encourage national institutions to engage with local organizations and to highlight the urgency to ensure equal opportunities to women and girls.

Africa Code Week is an initiative by SAP supported by UNESCO. It envisions systemic and sustained change by enabling millions of young learners and thousands of teachers to discover the ICT field.

UNESCO YouthMobile is a flagship UNESCO Initiative, promoting sustainable development and grassroots empowerment through coding.

Nduna Girls (Zimbabwe) is a program to empower girls and young women with education grants, mentorship and digital skills.

OmniTech (Ethiopia) aims to inspire girls through technology and to counter negative gender norms by expanding the educational offer in schools. Its flagship program is OmniCoders.