Elizabeth Rector is The Womanity Foundation program leader for Girls Can Code in Afghanistan, teaching high school students to code. The project, implemented in two of Kabul’s biggest girls schools, launches in April 2016.
For most of my business career, my aspirations have shifted between growing and transforming businesses as a commercial leader and making a meaningful, lasting impact on the world. Over the years I’ve learned that commercial success and improving the lives of others go hand in hand, and nowhere is that more true than in the ground-breaking project I’m leading in Afghanistan on behalf of Womanity, teaching high school girls how to code.
Launching in April, the Girls Can Code program is being implemented in two of the largest public girls schools in Kabul with 40 girl students. Complete with new computer labs, it will see students receive over 300 hours of instruction in web development (two hours a day, five days a week during the school year) in addition to their core curriculum. In parallel, we are creating greater visibility to job opportunities for our graduates and working with Universities to create a pipeline of computer science students for them. We’ll also be providing mentors and internship opportunities.
It’s an ambitious program to say the least and there are some who think teaching college level web development to high school girls in Afghanistan can’t be done. Why? Because of the lack of developed infrastructure both technical and otherwise (electricity, internet access, mobile broadband, etc) not to mention attitudes toward girls education.
Yet we have been working to overcome the infrastructure issues through providing computer labs, internet wiring in schools and generator backups. And we’ve also been working to change those attitudes towards girls education over the past nine years.
Now, we believe we can teach girls in Afghanistan to code.
So let’s go back to basics and answer the most fundamental question: why are we focusing on girls? In short, it’s because the needs are great – women still comprise the majority of the uneducated and illiterate, they are more frequently victimised by violence, and they hold a second-class status in many places.
Another reason is that investing in women and girls is beneficial to society. There is a ripple effect, or gender dividend, when you invest in women. If you invest in a girl’s education for example, each year she attends after the 4th grade increases her wages by 20% (1). A girl that graduates from high school is two times more likely to send her children to school and women spend 90% of earned income on their families, whereas men spend just 30-40% (2). When 10% more girls go to school, a country’s GDP grows 3% (2). Just imagine the sustained improvement that results when we invest in girls in developing countries.
Not only that, eliminating the barriers for girls could raise labor productivity by 25% in some countries. Closing the gender gap in agriculture could lift between 100-150 million people out of hunger (2). The facts speak for themselves.
So why focus on teaching girls to code? Imagine for the moment that experts on the global employment market are correct: that in the next 15 years there will be a global shortage of skilled workers and an oversupply of low-skilled labor. We know that STEM related jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are growing 1.7 times faster than other jobs and that these roles pay 33% more than other jobs (3). The wage gap between men and women is lower in STEM related fields, yet today women are underrepresented in these fields. With this gap in the developed world proving incredibly challenging to correct, it will only be that much harder in the developing world. The sooner we start training girls to code to equip them for these STEM jobs, the better, for them and for all of us.
Along with this growing shortage in the high skilled labor force, the number of people using the mobile internet and adopting smart phone technology is growing exponentially, largely driven by the developing world. Around 2.4bn people used the mobile internet in 2014, with this is predicted to grow to 3.8billion in 2020 (4).
So, why does this all matter to Womanity and our work in Afghanistan? Womanity has spent nine years improving the access and quality of education in Afghanistan through infrastructure improvements, engaging the community in the support for girls’ education and improving teaching skills. We now have a strong foundation of support in 15 public schools which serve over 30,000 girls. Womanity has increased enrolment rates, decreased dropout rates, improved attendance, test scores and university enrolment.
Despite these positive outcomes, participation in higher education and employment in Afghanistan remains low. Traditional professions for women such as teaching, health care and NGOs are insufficient to provide enough employment to girls. Young women in Afghanistan see this and when interviewed express a strong desire for additional vocational training in English, computer skills, life and job skills.
The time is now for Womanity to build on our track record in Afghanistan, by introducing new vocational programs that align with the future labor market. This is key to sustained development.
This is why, with the approval of the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan, we are piloting our Girls Can Code curriculum to see if by fostering an early interest in computer science we can improve employment rates and admission to higher education, and higher female participation in STEM employment.
What is unique about Womanity is that we are constantly pushing the boundaries in the area of women’s empowerment. Our philosophy is to look for innovative ideas that can be scaled and replicated. We invest in areas where others don’t, we prove a model that works and then find partners to scale and achieve the desired outcomes. We excel at working in areas that haven’t been proven but have tremendous possibility and are interested in areas that could bring improvements in our world for generations.
For example, Womanity launched the first commercial radio run by women in the Middle East – Radio Nisaa – which is now among the top ranking Palestinian radio stations with 300,000 listeners. We help social entrepreneurs use technology to prevent violence against women through our peer-to-peer #ICTforWomanity network. Next month we will be announcing the winners of our 2016 Womanity Awards providing three years of support to two partners working in the field of tackling gender-based violence through technology, and now, we are teaching girls in public high schools in Afghanistan to code.
As I said at the start, I am business person first and foremost and believe in measuring results and return on investment. I am convinced that investing in girls not only achieves results but also helps us achieve a fair, just and prosperous world. And this, in turn, helps all of us. Womanity aims to affect real and lasting change for girls in Afghanistan and we will be focusing on this for the years to come.