“There are so many girls who are so desperate for education that they will get up at 3:00 in the morning. They will go and fetch water. They will go and feed their brothers and sisters and their family. And they will study. And they will walk miles and miles to go to school” – Gina Tesla
More than 62 million girls around the world are not attending school. But through the U.S. government’s ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative, a multilateral effort is putting education technology and a future at their fingertips.
In parts of the developing world, girls are expected to do house chores, care for siblings, and fetch water. But they are last in line after their brothers to get an education, if at all. And if they are lucky enough to go to school, they sometimes are shut out.
“In many countries, such as India … it just becomes completely socially unacceptable for a girl to be attending school” when she begins to menstruate, said Gina Tesla, Chief of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps in an interview with Techtonics. And sometimes, “there just simply may not be any sort of bathroom facilities” for girls in these situations. And so they can’t go to school.
To tackle some of these issues, the U.S. Peace Corps, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, and local tech firm TechAide came together under the Let Girls Learn initiative to “provide more access to education for girls who are not receiving it.” The initiative was launched by U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2015, and the Peace Corps has been “at the forefront of implementing” it, according to Tesla.
Her team has been working closely with TechAide, a recipient of IBM’s pro bono consulting services, to develop a server to provide educational content to rural areas of Ghana.
The server, equipped with Wi-Fi capability, is called ASANKA.
Speaking with Techtonics, TechAide’s CEO, Kafui Prebbie, explained that ASANKA means ‘community bowl’ in the Ghanaian language. It’s also short for All Subjects and New Knowledge Access.
Internet subscriptions in Ghana are expensive and connectivity is spotty, particularly in rural areas with the greatest educational needs. So TechAide had to come up with a different solution to deliver educational content.
“We started to look at that small device,” he said, “cheap … easy to deploy, one watt of power, and to make it easily available in communities with content either pre-configured onto it or accessible through a mobile network, and put content that people in rural areas can access.”
The device is not free to schools. But TechAide and the Peace Corps just started a pilot program in 20 communities to drum up official support from Ghana’s Ministry of Education. The aim, according to Prebbie, is to “show the ministry that you can have this device in the schools and put the content on it and make it available to the boys and girls who cannot access the content cheaply, easily, interestingly.”
TechAide has also partnered with banks to help set up education labs in schools, where students can access approved educational content, including audio, video, and interactive games. Teachers can use a free wireless hotspot to look up content for education or community development, including textbooks and curricula which have been published over the years but are now damaged or lost.
Half of the teachers in underserved areas don’t even have a syllabus, noted Tesla. But Prebbie said TechAide is trying to “pull together all this content in soft copies – electronic formats – and put all of this on the ASANKA device and [make] it available also in the schools.”
In addition to the curricula, TechAide, IBM, and the Peace Corps visited schools and talked directly to girls to learn more about their needs. They then put together 20 topics “that were interesting to the adolescent girls about the problems that face them and making choices,” he said.
Some of the common issues the girls raised included chores and parents making decisions about boys going to school but not being able to pay for the girls’ education, and how to raise money to pay their own fees through school.
Reaching out to the girls, said Tesla, helped IBM and Peace Corps volunteers understand the gaps in communities that need support, perhaps with more “delicate content” to “help educate girls about some of the more nefarious … ways that they can end up in situations where they are being promised access to education and that’s not really what’s happening.”
Working within local communities, Prebbie is looking for interesting ways to present this type of information and help parents “stay extremely focused on girls’ education and the power of girls’ empowerment within the context of national development.”
All of this material will be loaded on ASANKA to help girls “take decisions by even playing those games and seeing the effect of those things … why they’re not able to go to school and how they can get around it,” he said.
Meanwhile, TechAide is building an ecosystem around the device by bringing women into its IT staff. “We’re creating something … called the ASANKA Girls Network,” he announced.
Girls in the network would know how to use the devices. “They’ve taken decisions based on what they’ve seen in the schools and they’ve used these devices to empower themselves,” he added. “…. We want these girls also in the future to be able to be coders to design the program that we put on the boxes that go into Africa.”
For Tesla, this kind of approach makes “pure business sense.” She believes the more tech companies engage in projects in emerging markets while providing their own employees with “life-changing opportunities,” the more they can innovate “to help make positive contributions to societal issues.”
In one collaboration, IBM and the Peace Corps brought 27 high school girls from rural Ghana to Ashesi University, a nonprofit college in Accra, for two days of empowerment and mentoring and an address by IBM’s Country General Manage for Ghana, Angela Kyerematen-Jimoh.
“She is [IBM’s] first female country general manager for all of Africa,” said Tesla. “And she grew up in the Ghanaian education system. And she was an example to all of the young people there, but particularly to the girls who were there to see that there really are possibilities … for advancement.”
“Implanting those seeds of inspiration” is important, she added, because education is a promise children in developed countries grow up with and expect, but in developing parts of the world, it is a promise girls may never hear.
– Aida Akl I VOA