Friday, August 18, 2017

Closing the IT gender gap

Forget the TV remote: Studies show men are now hogging the tablets too. A new initiative seeks to get young women enthusiastic about technology and the role it can play in their everyday lives.

Young women participate in the Tech Age Girls program at a library in Insein township, Yangon. Photos: Thiri Lu / The Myanmar TimesYoung women participate in the Tech Age Girls program at a library in Insein township, Yangon. Photos: Thiri Lu / The Myanmar Times

It wasn’t too long ago that the majority of village libraries in Myanmar were poorly serviced, lacking furniture, electricity and the latest books, let alone computers.

This began changing last year when Beyond Access Myanmar started a project to equip 90 community libraries throughout the country with tablet computers, providing access to the internet and giving library visitors exposure to the latest news, job search websites and other useful resources.

Follow-up surveys conducted by staff at these libraries have revealed that the tablets are being used roughly twice as often by men as by women.

In response to this disparity, Beyond Access Myanmar is launching a program called Tech Age Girls Myanmar with the aim of giving young women the opportunity to learn IT skills and hone their leadership qualities.

“In Myanmar, only 35 percent of library visitors are girls and women,” said U Thant Thaw Kaung, founder of the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation (MBAPF), which is also involved with the Tech Age Girls program.

Daw Ah Win, the foundation’s project manager, said that “girls living in Yangon’s Dagon and South Okkalapa townships don’t even know about desktop and laptop computers, let alone girls living in rural villages”.

“They pay K5000 to get access to Facebook at mobile phone shops and know how to use Facebook with their smartphones, but they don’t know how to use other useful applications like Gmail and Google for general knowledge, or how these applications can help their studies,” she said.

Around a hundred young women will take part in the year-long program.Around a hundred young women will take part in the year-long program.

Daw Ah Win added that when she visited the town of Maubin in Ayeyarwady Region to learn how much young women there knew about IT, many of them did not even know how to define the word “technology”.

Beyond Access Myanmar is launching the Tech Age Girls program in partnership with the MBAPF, US-based nonprofit organisation IREX, Ooredoo and the Ministry of Information.

About 100 girls aged 16 to 20 – from 20 active libraries in five regions – have been selected to participate in a year-long program, which starts on May 16.

In preparation, one librarian from each of the 20 participating libraries was brought to Yangon for a one-week training session in digital literacy, leadership and other skills. They will return to their own regions and teach these skills to the five girls selected from each library.

During the one-year program, the selected girls will complete courses in graphic design, text and video editing, and social media tools. In the final step of the program, one outstanding student from each of the libraries will be selected for additional training.

While this program is just getting under way, librarian Ma Poe Ei Zar from the Maubin Community Development Center – a computer learning centre attached to the community library – has been visiting nearby villages once a week, bringing along two computer tablets in an effort to expose village girls to technology.

There are 88 villages in Maubin township, about one-third of which have their own libraries. But only a handful are active.

“The girls are not totally interested in technology. They think it has nothing to do with them,” Ma Poe Ei Zar said. “I insist that there are helpful applications that affect their daily lives, such as weather forecasts. But they are still reluctant to learn.”

“Some girls from villages near Maubin town have smartphones and they have Facebook and Viber applications. They think those are the only apps that can be used with smartphones. I explain them that they can use other educational apps with smartphones,” she said.

Many tech users are unaware that apps can mean more than just Facebook and Viber.Many tech users are unaware that apps can mean more than just Facebook and Viber.

Surveys conducted by Beyond Access Myanmar have revealed instances where access to apps other than Facebook has helped improve lives.

When floods struck Myanmar last August, one librarian packed her computer tablet and cycled to a relief camp in Taikkyi township in Yangon Region. Once there, she was able to use the Myanmar-language May May maternal and child health app to help a pregnant women prepare for delivery and connect with a nearby clinic.

In another instance, 10 unemployed young women used internet-connected tablet computers at U Wisara Community Library in Sagaing to find jobs at local hotels and small businesses.

U Thant Thaw Kaung said that students who complete the Tech Age Girls program will have opportunities to “work as an intern at local NGOs and work in their villages to develop their own community and to improve technology literacy”.