DISRUPTIONS in learning experienced in many schools across Africa following the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic have shown the need to expedite the development of infrastructure that can effectively support the integration of Information and Communications Technology studies in education curriculums on the continent.
This was recently said by the African Union Commissioner of Science and Technology, Professor Sara Anyang-Agbor at the African Girls Can Code Initiative (AGCCI) Symposium held virtually.
This online symposium titled “Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on Y oung Girls: Support to the African Girls Who Can Code” was organized by UN Women in partnership with the African Union, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UNICEF and UNESCO.
Professor Anyang-Agbor said imparting ICT skills to students was non-negotiable and cannot be delayed any longer, as the future of work in Africa clearly speaks to digitalization.
The Africa Union this year launched the Digital Transformation Strategy to emphasize the importance of ICTs in Africa’s future and to further support the Education Strategy for Africa (2016-2025), which promotes effective integration of ICTs in the school curriculums in Africa.
“We need to engage young minds and empower them with life-skills they can use to contribute to developing the continent. Currently, we are seeing the integral role played by ICTs in Africa’s response and mitigation to COVID-19. Therefore, today the place of internet connectivity and energy cannot be over-emphasized. We need to bridge the digital gender divide to ensure that all critical components come together for progress towards the sustainable development goals,” Professor Anyang-Agbor said.
More than 200 people from countries across Africa and representing AGCCI beneficiaries, Government, African Union, and United nations participated in the symposium.
They discussed strategies on how the African Girls Can Code Initiative can leverage ongoing technology development programs in Africa to trigger positive transformation that could reduce the digital gender-divide in addition to strengthening support of anti-COVID-19 programs.
The symposium also explored opportunities to scaleup support to all girls in Africa, particularly in view of the shift of learning to the digital space due to lockdowns in many countries to help fight Covid-19.
Participants expressed strong views that beyond Coronavirus, and as Africa braces for the fourth Industrial Revolution, there will be no turning back on the need for a digital-literate African citizenry.
The African Girls Can Code Initiative was commissioned by UN Women in 2018 and implemented by the International Telecommunication Union in collaboration with the African Union Commission. It was designed to expose and equip young girls, aged 17-20 years, with digital literacy, coding, and personal development skills.
The initiative employs a “spark interest” approach which has so far managed to ignite the passion for coding among 600 girls in Africa.
Key speakers during the symposium included the UN Women Executive Director, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, Her Excellency Amira Elfadil; African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology Her Excellency Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor; Heads of UN entities such as the International Telecommunication Union, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s F und (UNICEF).
The panelists were 10 girls from Tanzania, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Senegal, Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Liberia. They set the tone for the discussion, highlighting challenges faced by many girls, how they were coping and supporting their peers to the fight against COVID-19 in their communities.
One of the panelists, Hanna Wassihun from Ethiopia, said: “Girls in Ethiopia are facing violence; the society is not protecting girls from sexual assault and other forms of abuse. We need to be part of volunteer services to fight this and other impacts of Covid- 19 on girls and young women.”
Devotha Robert from Tanzania said when schooling shifted to online platforms; many poor students struggled to access classes. “Using digital innovations to expand modes of learning is a good initiative but it would be more useful if we could have the infrastructure that supports online learning for all,” said Devotha.
Iradukunda Mireille of Burundi said many students in her country cannot afford internet data, “At times, I submit my work late due to lack of equipment to enable scanning of my work and sending to my teachers,” Mireille said.
Fatou Ndiaye from Senegal said while many girls in other African countries were struggling to learn online, some with access were facing a different challenge of cybercrime. “My online accounts were hacked into and I started receiving indecent messages and videos,” said F atou.
Some of the panelists expressed concerns over domestic violence including child sexual abuse, which they said could lead to unwanted pregnancies and forced marriages during the pandemic.
That is why Reotshepile Mmute from South Africa has teamed up with her friends to create an online platform where girls can discuss challenges and share possible solutions to ensure protection, support, and exposing the offenders.
In Liberia, Jemima Belle and Ronella Nambi from Uganda are also using their coding skills to connect with friends and support each other to overcome challenges related to Covid-19, including reporting cases of abuse.
Another panelist from Rwanda, Janet Uwamahoro, said she and her friends have established an online platform to support an initiative by the government called the Youth Volunteers’ program.
“The platform is contributing to efforts to debunk myths associated with COVID-19 and giving girls in my country a voice,” Janet said.
Speaking at the symposium, the UN Women Executive Director, Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka, said it was encouraging to see that the seeds of coding planted through the African Girls Can Code Initiative had germinated and creation of new champions in the digital space had taken root.
During this pandemic, Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka said, the girls had q uickly swung into action to use their coding skills to support turning the tide in their respective countries and communities.
“As I listened to the girls, I saw an urgent need for various development partners including education sectors in Africa to partner with us through the AGCC Initiative, to make it accessible to all students in all schools,” Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
She also highlighted the importance of ensuring that technology development programs do not leave teachers behind, adding they were critical actors to efforts aimed at bridging the digital gender divide.
“When teachers grasp technology, they become super-spreaders of knowledge. The need to empower all students in ICT skills has become even more imperative based on Africa’s experiences during Coronavirus. Limiting access to technology for our future leaders in Africa can now be equated to neglecting an important facet for their growth and for the development of nations.
Importantly, we need laws and policies that can ensure online protection while we continue to forge partnerships for resilient infrastructure that can support these efforts going forward,” she said.
The UN Women Representative in Tanzania, Ms Hodan Addou said the girls’ initiatives have shown that, despite the challenges related to Covid-19, they were using their coding skills proactively to solve some of the challenges experienced in their communities.
“We have four girls from rural Tanzania, including Devotha Robert, who have participated in the AGCCI coding camp in South Africa. We are still providing support to ensure that the girls can continue to innovate their skills to support other girls to cope in the Covid-19 recovery context for Tanzania,” Ms Addou said.
She further explained that UN Women Tanzania is working with various partners in advocacy initiatives aimed at creating opportunities for young women and girls to harness ICT skills, such as in the recent Roundtable Dialogue that discussed Placing Young Women and Girls at the Centre of the Coronavirus Response and Recovery.
Her Excellency, Amira Efadil, the African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs spoke of the emerging online gender-based violence, explaining that the African Union was coordinating the implementation of the Online Sexual Exploitation Project working with member- states through various organs such as Child Protection Committee.
“The in-country frameworks should advocate for child-friendly internet accessibility, working with internet service providers to help curb online violence, prevent the dissemination of undesirable materials. Importantly, the project promotes gender eq uality in the ICTs with a strong focus on girls to receive support to develop their digital skills and positively impact their communities,” she said.
She encouraged the girls trained under the AGCCI to be part of some of the ICT initiatives by the Africa Centre for Disease Control to help disseminate information and knowledge that can support Covid-19 prevention efforts.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Regional Director for Africa, Mr Andrew Rugege said there was a need to continue investing in narrowing the digital gender divide to increase women’s and girls’ participation in decision making.
He urged the AGCCI alumni to look at the existing digital platforms and programs and see how they can be adapted to situations in their countries and communities to further strengthen their support to the fight against Coronavirus.