By Claudia Cahalane and Antonella Notari Vischer

A short version of this blog was published on 26 September 2016 on the Economist Intelligence Unit

More people in the developing world have access to digital technologies than ever before

According to the World Bank, the number of Internet users has more than tripled in the years 2005-2015. However, inequality still exists with roughly 4bn people living without any Internet access. The long-term development impact of this disparity is particularly felt in countries such as Afghanistan which has an adult illiteracy rate of 60%.

The Afghan government envisions information and communication technologies (ICT) as crucial to all aspects of social and economic life in the country by 2024. It hopes for “a networked, globalised and democratic nation that optimally uses the potential of ICT in trade, commerce, health, education and public governance”.

There is a chance that such dreams could be realised, but not without sustained investment in girls’ and women’s education and skills development. At the moment, only around 7%  of people in Afghanistan have access to the Internet. While the country is trying to increase this level, it must be careful it does not end up making the mistake of other developing countries, which have a far greater proportion of men to women online.

Tech and women’s emancipation

Exposing women to technical skills and opportunities in an increasingly technological world is central to equality, empowerment and the economic stability of any country. The World Bank estimates that every 10% increase in access to broadband results in 1.38% GDP growth for developing countries. Equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical education by 2030 is a key component of the Sustainable Development Goals. Intel (2013) estimates that bringing 600m additional women and girls online could boost global GDP by up to US$13-18 bn.

Girls Can Code

There are currently 200m fewer women than men with access to the Internet globally, let alone access to higher technical skills. However, there are a number of tech programmes launching for girls in Afghanistan and there is, encouragingly, goodwill in various factions of society.

The Ministry of Education is supporting Womanity’s Girls Can Code programme, which started earlier this year for teenagers in public schools. Moreover, there has been substantial support from parents. The programme includes classes in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, MySQL and PHP coding.

We’ve been working in schools in Afghanistan for nearly a decade to advance girls’ education in the public school system, which was in shambles at the beginning of the 20th century. Over 33,000 children have benefitted. But lately, teachers, students and families have started asking for support in preparing young women more specifically for professional careers. We took a close look at studies about the Afghan job market which predict that some of the skills most in demand in the future will be in web development and related technical fields. We wanted to prepare girls for this opportunity and so launched Girls Can Code earlier this year.

This school year, two classes of 20 Afghan teenage girls are attending Womanity’s intensive coding and web development course. This course is offered in two public high schools in Kabul for two hours a day, six days a week over eight months, in addition to their normal school day. We’ve named the course Girls Can Code to proclaim the huge potential of these and many other young Afghan women, whose mothers often were not taught to read and write.

Students we work with are broadening their dreams about the future since they started. One told us: “I hope to be admitted to the computer science faculty of the University of Kabul. It is my desire to be a top coding programmer!”

Womanity is also building critical partnerships with employers, higher education institutions and NGOs to provide internships, job opportunities, technical certificates, further education opportunities and skills development to succeed in the job market. While improving girls’ economic opportunities is one important outcome, teaching girls to code also builds confidence, improves problem-solving skills and exposes girls to a world that is full of solutions, not just challenges.

Life after Taliban rule, which lasted between 1995 and 2001 throughout most of Afghanistan, means that there is a whole generation of girls who have missed out on childhood education. Indeed, women still hold second-class status in many areas. However, those that go to school and college are beginning to see the potential of the ITC space. Scores of female app developers are emerging in the main cities of Kabul and Herat. In May 2016, for example, 45 young women submitted mobile app ideas at Girls Make Apps Workshops, which is organised by Herat Technovation.

Women, ITC and Afghanistan’s Future

 With a global shortage of skilled tech workers expected in the coming years, coding is helping women break through into the ITC space. It is also a sector which allows people to work from home and be available to look after their family, which is still necessary for many Afghan women. With a full range of talent to tap into, Afghanistan’s economy can grow and become less reliant on foreign aid and retain ambitious young women and men.