HerITAge: Challenging the Myths about Girls and Technology

Wednesday, 15 October, 2008 - 17:18

How do we ensure that girls and young women inherit a world in which they are equal citizens?

Heritage month in South Africa has come…and gone. Yet how often do we reflect on what our heritage means to us today? For me, the word ‘heritage’ incorporates both the notion of ‘acquiring’ and that of being ‘ascribed’ a particular status, position or condition. Applied to the position of South African girls, violence, poverty, illiteracy and HIV and AIDS appear to be tightly woven into their heritage.

Given the position of the girl child in societies across the world, how do we ensure that girls and young women acquire and inherit a world in which they are equal citizens, have the right to speak and be heard, and are able to participate meaningfully in all aspects of their development? Specifically, how do we ensure that the information and communication technologies are inserted into girls’ heritage?

For an inheritor to fully experience his/her status, they need to identify and possess the heritage. Therefore if a girl child is to be actively part of the global world, technologies need to be identified and then made accessible to her in order for her to build a positive global status.

Based on the relationship between the information age and the development of technology driving it, the world as we know it, is now global. Due to this interplay of information and technology, people from different parts of the world communicate, organise themselves (virtually), interact with one another in a more vibrant, lively, fast and easy way. It could be argued that by virtue of these developments and our global citizenship, we have the right to these technologies. They are our heritage: ours to own, use and manipulate so as to live and operate fully in this global village.

Yet not everyone can access this heritage. Many technologies in this global world are not accessible to all its citizens, eg such as learners from rural Limpopo, contract workers at a supermarket or women selling vegetables at a street corner. I argue that this inheritance is least possessed, used or manipulated fully by the girl child. Her contact with a computer is almost certainly a wish; she has probably vaguely heard of email or never even heard of blogging. Although girls are not a homogenous group, there is overwhelming evidence that shows many girls lack access to information technologies. Problematically, this lack of access is sometimes read as lack of interest by girls themselves. Most often what we see is the sexist notion that information technologies are for boys, where pushing buttons and manipulating hardware is still socially perceived and accepted as part of a male identity.

Although there has been mushrooming of internet cafés in cities and in townships, the costs to maintain and use are too high for many. In addition, safety is a concern for women in particular as they are often the target of criminals.

Cell phone technology has gained momentum as a vital information technology tool. Many, including the poor desire to have or own cell phones for their aesthetic appeal and expensiveness in response to the commercial and ‘brand’ society we live in to gain social status. However, it is often the case that particular features are not used to their full potential. For example, even if a girl were to own a cell phone through which she can access the internet, this feature is often ignored as they prefer features such as photographs, video sharing and phone chat. Of course, the cost implications of accessing the internet through cell phones should not be ignored.

Some guardians, parents and activists, claiming to be keepers of ‘culture and tradition’ have criticised cell phones, computers and even television for what they see as having a negative role and influence in pushing the youth away from their ‘original’ cultures. I argue that it would be a failure on our part if these technologies are not recognised as part of girls’ culture – their inheritance.

I argue that elements of identity, possession/ownership and manipulation of information technologies for girls’ development should be a focus. As parents and guardians are expected to be the teachers of culture and tradition, so is it the responsibility of government and organisations to make information communication technologies (ICTs) accessible to girls and to emphasise the importance of girls in using these ICT tools.

Boys are socially associated with technologies (computers, television games, cell phones etc). The social construction of boys implies a natural ‘affinity’ to technology which responds to their ‘inquisitive’ natures. However, this notion like many others is fundamentally flawed and is consistently challenged by girls themselves who have, given the opportunity and space to freely believe, think and know that ICTs are also theirs to use, shown equal aptitude and interest in ICTs. The numbers of women in the technology sector, while still low, are growing. Girls’Net is but one example of a project that aims to create a space for girls to harness ICTs - to work and play with them for their own development.

The notion that girls have both the right and ability to use ICTs is not widely held. Because many girls (and adults too) have been unable to even simply imagine girls as active agents and users of ICTs, girls continue to be marginalised; the digital divide is more acute.

I argue that girls, and those working with girls and young women, must embrace what Girls’Net describes as HerITAge (pronounced her-eye-tee-age). We must debunk the myths around the masculine nature of technology use and challenge commonly held attitudes to girls and technology. We are in the age in which girls are taking ownership of ICTs for their own purposes; it is the responsibility of girls and women’s rights activists to create the conditions in which this can happen.

It is HerITAge.

- Faith Nkomo is the Girls’Net Project Manager. For more information contact her at faith@womensnet.org.za

Related articles: 
NGO Profile: Girls’Net

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