At 13, in second year at a public secondary school in the heart of Nigeria’s capital, Khadijat Gwandu is no stranger to modern technology, especially digital. She doesn’t know coding, but she knows social media.
“We do computer science in school, we have been doing that, but I don’t know much about it,” she says.
Her knowledge of modern technology is a checkerboard of clear thoughts and uncertainties.
She is one of nearly a dozen girls seated round a table under a marquee while a programmer talks them through the intricacies of technology-using markers on plain paper.
It is a watershed moment getting more girls into the digital space.
A study involving more than 3,000 adolescent boys and girls across 25 countries found that the increased risk and lower opportunities girls faced in real life were replicated in their access to technology – from mobile phones to other forms of modern tech.
Girls are usually lumped in with women but the ‘Real Girls, Real Lives, connected’, report found boys were nearly twice as likely than teenage girls to even own a smartphone.
Closing the digital divide means getting more tech into the hands of girls, but it is not just about access and possession.
“It is to show people how they can apply technology. It is not just to tell them, ‘go and use technology’, but to show them how,” says Chioma Agwuegbo, founder of TechHer. The organization has been engaging girls from rural to urban areas to teach them how technology can change their lives.
Its most recent pitch involved picking dozens of girls from both rural and urban areas where they have never even seen or used a computer. And there’s no end to what people can do with technology these days, says Agwuegbo. And what to teach.
There’s personal branding
There’s online safety. “It is not just ‘use the internet, use the internet’, but how can they be safe,” she says.
Business. “The country is tough. For those who want to support their parents after school, and young women who have small businesses, how can you apply technology to your business,” she says.
Politics and power. “How people have used technology to move forward. Nigeria has one of the lowest representations for women in politics, and this is really, really poignant for us.”
Advocacy. “There is Bring Back our Girls, there’s Save Bagega, there’s Not Too Young to Run. It is applying technology to movement building and advocacy. It is not just technology for the sake of technology but the application of technology to the things that really matter,” Agwuegbo says.
The #NotTooYoungToRun started as a social media campaign to get lawmakers to reduce the minimum age for standing elections. It snowballed into a movement before and after lawmakers accented to the bill across federal and state legislatures. It opened the floodgates for young people into politics and decision making.
Hundreds stood as candidates in elections across the country. The result: 4 assembly speakers under 35, and 22 lawmakers under 35.
How big that is is not quantifiable in terms of numbers because it has become bigger than just Nigeria, says Efemena Ozugha, programme officer for governance and development at YIAGA AFRICA which started the #NotTooYoungToRun.
Not just about any cause can be adapted to the campaign, and a movement before it swells anywhere in the world. “It is all over Africa,” she says.
The question isn’t about whether girls can be allowed into the digital world, but whether they can be stopped. It also points to why there is much concern about girls getting a foothold on technology early on.
“The analogue world has been taken by men and boys -largely because of the nature of our society that gives preference to boys and men, and they have dominated,” says Hussaini Abdu, country director for Plan International Nigeria, which has started a campaign to reach 10 million girls in five years.
The campaign hopes to transform power relations in favour of girls-with a suite of interventions to help them “learn, lead, decide and thrive.”
“The new world is the digital world, and we want girls to take that important space. If we missed yesterday, we should not miss today or tomorrow,” Abdu says.
“The digital world is the world of today and the future. If girls and women are going to play a very important role in the economy and society of this world – Nigeria in particular – then they have to embrace the information and communication technology.”
Present odds are stacked against girls: women hold only 5% of seats in parliament; six in 10 children of school age not in school are girls; 44 in 100 girls will be married off before they turn 18; and 64% of children are disciplined with violence.
The theory of change is to provide knowledge, skill, voice, safe space and systems for girls like Khadijat. It is about technology application, value-based partnerships, mobilizing civil society, building girls’ capacity, influencing with evidence and transforming gender roles.
The result? Girls who can change their world, are educated, are healthy and can decide, and are safe.
“Because of the differences in terms of income, most of the poor people in the country are women. And the factors that make women poorer than men are the same factors that shape access to technology. Predominantly, girls also have limited access to this technology,” says Abdu.
“The gender digital divide is not peculiar to Nigeria. it is a global phenomenon. It is just that the depth differs across different countries and regions. Already, we are a society that deeply excludes women politically, socially and economically. The tendency for this digital divide to actually widen is very high. Bridging the digital divide is one of the important mechanisms to ensure we are able to provide the right space, the right voice and the power for women and girls to contribute to the development of their society.
“It has two dimensions: it empowers them as individuals and it also empowers the country because their empowerment is very important to the development of the country.”
Khadijat has just started on her own journey to actualization.