When we celebrated International Girls in ICT Day a year ago, we were at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, expecting it to be a short-term “blip”. For many of us, online meetings – complete with “you’re on mute” – were still a novelty. As the pandemic loomed over us, digital connectivity was enabling learning to continue for some children, with parents and caregivers doing their best to “fill in the blanks”.
Despite the many challenges – and indeed they are many, especially for marginalized children – it’s clear that we’re scratching the surface of something exciting. We’re increasingly seeing the various ways of using and expanding technology. Indeed, as societies reopen, we’ll still be exploring the potential of digital solutions to make our work, learning and socializing more efficient and enjoyable.
More than ever before, the pandemic has revealed the potential of digital connectivity. From another angle, the pandemic has starkly revealed the digital divide.
According to UNICEF figures released last year, only 33 per cent of children and young people have Internet access at home. And there is a significant gap between high-income and low-income countries: 87 per cent coverage compared to 6 per cent, respectively. The lack of access to the Internet means exclusion, marked by the lack of access to the wealth of information available online, fewer resources to learn, and limited opportunities for the most vulnerable children and youth to fulfil their potential.
It’s harder for girls. They disproportionally face multiple barriers to education.
This is true for boys and girls. But the fact of the matter is, it’s harder for girls. They disproportionally face multiple barriers to education such as poverty, child marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, paid and unpaid work – all of which are heightened during crises. When it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) – and exposure to ICT – girls also face social and cultural barriers that favour and bias technical subjects and careers for boys. These barriers are deeply rooted in unequal gender norms that wrongly reinforce the ludicrous belief that girls and women are ‘not cut out for’ subjects that require problem-solving and an inquisitive mind.
We need to collectively – at all levels – and proactively dismantle the prejudice that inhibits girls from pursuing learning opportunities that enable them to realize their aspirations and their potential – that is, really engage and interest them. In an age that is shaped by technological advances, having the know-how to operate, use and create technology and science-based solutions will be critical to the advancement of young people – and crucial for girls’ and women’s education, health, voice and empowerment.
The opportunities presented for students, their teachers, school authorities and governments at this moment in history are exciting and potentially transformational. The magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic and its unprecedented impact on education has ignited innovative ideas and presented the world with a unique window of opportunity to revolutionize education systems and reimagine education for girls.
Key to this is making commitments to innovative, gender-responsive STEM education by including it in national education policies and budgets, and recruiting and upskilling teachers, especially women.
This is about modernizing education systems so that the poorest girls have equal access to quality STEM education, including ICT facilities and skills.
This is about forging public-private partnerships to maximize emerging technologies and create schemes to help girls and young women engage in STEM fields and careers.
This is about engaging communities, including men and boys, to help make male-dominated spaces welcome and safe for girls, and to value the skills and contribution of girls and women.
And this is about boosting the leadership of girls and girl-led networks that advocate for STEM and provide peer support to each other.
Anyone and everyone involved in education must play a role. As education is about the future, communities, and economies, that means everyone. Under the Reimagine Education initiative, UNICEF is scaling up exciting solutions that eschew traditional development programming to really push the agenda of equity in education. For example, we are working with Microsoft on the Learning Passport, an innovative global platform that provides flexible online and offline gender-responsive content in multiple languages, even in emergencies. We’re also working with the International Telecommunication Union on Giga, a global initiative to connect every school to the Internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice by 2030.
Technology moves quickly, and we need to move quickly to ensure this opportunity is not wasted. All girls – including girls in emergency contexts – need to have access to quality learning opportunities so that they can develop the necessary knowledge and skills for work and life. This vision is achievable, but its realization needs immediate and sustained action. Much is happening and much remains to be done. We – everyone, together – must be the ones to do it.
Robert Jenkins is Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF.