Guest Blog by Nancy Kwangwa, Assistant Librarian-University of Zimbabwe
Nancy Kwangwa served as a visiting fellow at Byte Back in fall 2018 through the Community Solutions Program, run by IREX and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. She shares the lessons she brought from DC to Zimbabwe and how she had an impact on the digital divide for women in her home country.
Rapid changes in technology have transformed how people create, share, and access information and how they behave online. But access to digital resources is unequal.
Inequalities can be tied back to socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who lack digital skills face a hindrance to fully participate in today’s world. This is further exacerbated by gender inequalities and poverty, particularly in developing countries where girls and women struggle to afford technology and access the internet.
Stereotypes about technology being “for boys” and fear of being discriminated against also prevent girls from developing digital skills. The gender tech divide in Sub-Saharan Africa has left a majority of women without access to emerging opportunities and resources that could enhance their economic and social well-being.
As technology continue to advance, women and girls with poor digital literacy skills are the hardest hit.
How It Started
In light of this background and my passion for community development, I was motivated to participate in the Community Solutions Program (CSP). The CSP is a competitive development program for top community leaders worldwide. The program has three components – a four-month practicum in the US, the Community Leadership Institute integrated course, and the community action project where fellows apply skills in their home counties.
For my practicum, I was placed at Byte Back, an organization based in Washington, DC that provides a pathway of inclusive tech training that leads to living-wage careers.
What I Learned at Byte Back
The experience I gained at Byte Back and interacting with tech and nonprofit leaders was life-changing. I learned the fundamentals of project planning and development and how to successfully recruit participants.
At first, I doubted there would be participants for digital literacy classes in the US’s capital city of Washington, DC. I was proved wrong, though, as I saw Computer Foundations classes filling up. I saw the reality of the digital divide and inequalities, even in developed countries like the US.
Community development is not a job for one organization. At Byte Back, I had the opportunity to learn networking and collaboration skills by meeting with partners and attending community events. Strategic partnerships are essential when working on a social intervention, and combining an assortment of expertise is crucial to mobilizing resources.
Byte Back programs are empowering, as they provide a holistic pathway. Somebody can walk in without any digital literacy skills, unemployed, and homeless. The organization starts working with that individual, from offering typing tutorials to advanced computer courses, providing job readiness skills and linking them with prospective employers. The main lesson I drew from their approach to economic empowerment is that real impact should be seen on how people’s lives change after an intervention.
Time moved fast when I was in Washington, DC, and before I knew it, my four months were over. At Byte Back, I conceptualized my community action project with support from the staff. I returned to my home country, Zimbabwe, with so much energy and knowledge from my host organization.
Implementing the Project at Home in Zimbabwe
My project aimed at empowering young women through access to information and technology. At first, I thought it was going to be easy to implement with the knowledge and materials I had from Byte Back, but due to economic challenges and natural disasters, my project was delayed (Cyclone Idai and flooding hit Zimbabwe and neighboring countries in March 2019, killing hundreds).
When everything settled down a bit, I started searching for a volunteer assistant to help with recruitment of participants. Initially, I wanted to target young women from a rural school in Zimbabwe for the training, but I had to make adjustments due to financial challenges and competing commitments.
Using the networking skills I acquired at Byte Back, I reached out to the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, which is a network of women’s rights activists and organizations, with structures in the country’s 10 provinces. They assisted me in recruiting participants from their Young Women’s Forum, and the US Embassy in Harare provided the training venue and support for a digital training session.
I am so excited to share that my project was a success. It would not have been easy without the skills and knowledge that I acquired from Byte Back. On May 15, we trained 18 young women on digital literacy skills.
The proliferation of digital content creation tools has made it easier for people to create and share content. But the increase in fake news is causing social unrest and despondency. Additionally, individual need to be aware that their behavior on digital platforms can have long-term repercussions on their careers or reputation. It is imperative to equip people with netiquette and digital civility skills.
The training covered aspects of digital content creation, online opportunities and collaborations, and online etiquette. I was surprised that most participants were unemployed graduates who were looking for jobs, but they didn’t have the skills to search online. They were really excited to receive the training and expressed appreciation and requested more sessions.
The Future for Women and Digital Inclusion in Zimbabwe
This CSP project was a pilot project for greater projects to come. Drawing from the Byte Back model of pathways to living-wage careers, I am planning to take the digital literacy program to the next level, ensuring that young women make use of these skills for economic empowerment.
Digital literacy is indispensable for girls and women to obtain safe employment in the labor market. If there is digital exclusion for young women and girls, efforts in eradicating problems such as economic dependency, violence against women, and low self-esteem will continue in Africa. But when women become technologically equipped, they can actively partake in the mainstream economy, giving them a path out of poverty.