Nigeria: Girls Are the Future, Digitally

“I know I want to be a computer scientist,” hopes SS2 student Ruby Tagema Sakema, “but I just need more directions where to go–hardware or software.”

So too does her country, which still has its world of information and communication technology short on women.

Male dominance of ICT “means a larger workforce is not even affecting the world, it is not tapped,” says Ademola Komolafe, programme manager at Digital Peers International, which convened hundreds of girls to mark Girls in ICT Day. [Yes, there is such an annual day!]

“ICT is rubbing on our world, but we are looking at a larger population of humans, which happens to be female, to key into this very broad spectrum.”

ICT is crucial to Nigeria’s growth and a strong democracy “needs investment in technology–and making sure young people have access to that technology to build their capacity, connect and be able to contribute to society,” says Esther Agbarakwe, an activist using technology to inform young people on anything from climate to justice and human rights.

Nigeria has an emerging culture of women in high places–its finance and ICT ministers are impressively women, but those are “political leaders” and do not reflect the true society, argues Agbarakwe, because in reality, men–not women–are investing in and having access to ICT.

“We are a cultural society where women are kept in the back in everything we do. From the home to church to mosque and even workplaces, women are second fiddle to men but that has to change. It is changing around the world and technology can make that change faster,” she says.

“Women need to be seen as much more than an emerging market for technology. Women are investors in this market as well. Women are pioneering a lot.”

That includes one of the first-ever computer programming languages, but many girls hardly know that, says Patricia Fom of the IT firm Modern Business Services and Solutions. She says girls lack forums to know there are other women in ICT, “to know they can do it and it is not something for men alone.”

“We know that women can equally do as well, but if their orientation is not there or they don’t see themselves in that, they probably will not rise up to the call.”

Environments which perpetuate stereotypes that certain courses are not meant for women are taking that call away from girls. Right through basic and secondary school, boys and girls do the same subjects, but that changes when choices come up.

“You see engineers climbing masts and you think that’s not a woman’s job. It starts from there even before you pick subjects in school.

Nobody is telling you to your face that a woman can’t do this, but you just have a defined expectation. When a woman says she wants mechanical engineering, even in the home, they say, ‘hmm, why mechanical engineering? Why not English?’ or some other course they feel a woman can manage.”

The start is keeping girls out of sciences in the first place, says Komolafe. “Over time, there are hurdles and girls look for smarter ways to get along with life and a number of them drop out of school at a time when they should be adding value to society.”

That is Nigeria’s loss. “I know girls who are whiz at computers, but they don’t get the chance,” says Thelma Omoyele of Community Secondary School, Asokoro.

Aisha Abdulfatai major in accounts class at GSS, Dutse, but knows “ICT can help us.”

SS2 student Sarah MacDonald wants a future in biomedics and doesn’t just use computers meant to help humans, but knows the importance that come with an extra baggage of social media.

“Over use will not downgrade you but will reduce the level of knowledge you are meant to have. As a teenager, I have a lot to think about. My education comes first. Setting my priorities right won’t let me go into social networks and intensively use them like I don’t have anything to do in this world again.”

Ruth Michael of Model School, Maitama understands boys spend more time on ICT than girls, because “we have a lot of things to do to help our parents at home.”

While boys learn to include ICT in their lives, girls are being raised to have their own families–“grow up, get married and be able to take care of her family,” she says.

But ICT needs women. Think Google, one of the top IT companies in the world. The reason Google is “clean, nice and decent” is Marisa Meyer, argues Century Favour, who heads projects at Zoe Constructs, a multimedia production outfit in Abuja.

Meyer wanted simplicity and ease of use “without the clutter of invasive design” and coding, enough for an average woman to easily use.

A dearth of interest and opportunity are key to keeping women outside ICT and leaving it lopsided where females are more consumers than creators.

“Things are changing. African is beginning to understand gender equality. With that mindset more women will become more involved with technology.”

Will that make any difference? The better question is what women bring to the keyboard.

Says Favour: There is a way women see technology. We males see technology as a way of domineering, take control, take charge of the world, of nations while women see technology as a way to nurture to build a society. That balance will affect how Nigeria sees technology, when we look at how to use it to build society and raise our children.”

“My mother made me who I am, my father didn’t,” says Agbarakwe, considering a woman’s role in the home. “If I do the same thing as a woman, you can imagine how it will change altogether.”

Women can shape Nigeria’s ICT future, but girls today need ICT to shape their own future by tapping into its vast resource of information on reproductive health and rights.

Agbarakwe stoutly defends more ICT for girls. “When we don’t get access to the right information, we make the wrong choice, we put ourselves in trouble. We either get pregnant, drop out of school or do the wrong abortion and then we are gone. And they say, ‘oh, it is a girl, that’s what girls do.’ No, we need to get information, because we are girls and we are different from boys.”

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