A 'Call' to Action

New Technologies Stir Up Old Dangers for Girls in Developing Countries

By Published on .

Nigel Chapman
Nigel Chapman
"I'm interested in technology, multimedia—the business. I love entertainment, music. I'm meeting new people. [In school] I was exposed to media, the web, the internet ... I loved it. That's where I could connect with my friends."

--Tibusiso Msibi, 18-year-old female student, Swaziland

As computers and mobile phones have become cheaper and easier to access, even in the most remote areas of developing countries, the distances between people have shrunk. The media messages that were once available to the select few are now accessible to all, from the super-rich to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.

Adolescent girls make up one such group that needs to access these technologies to help free themselves from poverty and counter gender inequality. For girls and young women who may not be able to physically take part in political or even community activities, technology offers a unique platform to communicate with others, to campaign, to denounce human rights abuses and violence, to champion girls' rights and to access information that they might not otherwise come across. Information and communication technologies also have financial value for adolescent girls. In the U.K., the Cherie Blair Foundation survey found that 41% of women reported having increased income and professional opportunities through owning a mobile phone.

Yet new technology can hide old dangers. The online spaces created by new technologies allow sexual predators to operate with impunity, and girls are particularly vulnerable. They are vulnerable to online abuse for the same reasons they are vulnerable to offline abuse. Physically, puberty is when girls begin to be seen as sexually available. But psychologically, many adolescent girls are not equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves—for example, they may give out information they wouldn't share in another setting. The case of a young woman in the U.K. who was raped and murdered by a man she met through Facebook illustrates the real dangers such online solicitations can pose to adolescent girls.

The speed in which technologies change, coupled with the fact that young people are accessing them in a world with which their parents are unfamiliar, also means that the young users of these technologies have little protection from abuse. Moreover, the effects of online exploitation are permanent and severe. Once an image is on the web, it is virtually impossible to recall or reclaim it, meaning that images taken of girls will continue to affect them as they grow into adulthood.

Original research conducted in Brazil for the upcoming 2010 "Because I Am a Girl: State of the World's Girls" found that 84% of girls have a mobile phone and 60% say they have learned about online dangers. But 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online, and almost half the girls said they would go to meet someone in person whom they had met online.

These troubling statistics reflect the increasing demand for and use of new technologies along with the correlating escalation in risk to which girls are being exposed. While recognizing that the very nature of online culture makes it hard to control—and in many ways we would undermine its greatest characteristic by attempting to do so—we must seek to strike a balance between freedom of expression and some level of regulation. We should also trust girls to keep themselves safe. We must equip them with the knowledge and skills that allow them to distinguish opportunity from threat. Equipping girls with these skills is in everyone's interests.

By building up their resilience to fend off old dangers presented via new technologies, we ensure that as these technologies evolve, girls will have the capacity to adapt and mitigate the risks they pose to personal safety as well as taking advantage of technologies to the maximum.

To accomplish this, governments, businesses and civil societies need to work together to tackle the challenge of keeping girls safe online. Measures could include sex- and age-specific training for girls on how to protect their privacy and keep safe when online as well as how to report abuse. For instance Plan International's rules of online engagement could, and should, be posted on social media websites and in schools.

Proliferation of social and new media has created huge new audiences and, therefore, huge numbers of potential new consumers markets and revenue.

But with power comes responsibility. Facebook recently rejected calls to install "panic buttons" for children and young people as on other networking sites. But there are other options available. IT companies could foster online platforms where girls are invited to share information with each other about online safety. In our online survey in Brazil, girls themselves suggested several ways that they could keep themselves and others safe online. These included:

  • "Do not give information about yourself to people you do not know." --Girl, age 13, Santo Andre
  • "Have a help bar." --Girl, age 15, Espirito Santo do Pinhal
  • "A message highlighted in red when there is a risk of danger."--Girl, age 17, Espirito Santo do Pinhal

We ignore the dangers facing adolescent girls at our peril. Girls are half the world's future, the citizens who will be shaping technology in the decades to come. We owe it to them to ease their passage from childhood into womanhood so that they have the skills and the knowledge to build a better, safer future for us all. We owe it to ourselves and to the future of our world to listen to what they have to say. Girls themselves are telling us clearly what needs to be done.

Nigel Chapman is CEO of Plan International, a nonprofit organization that has been working to help children in developing countries since 1937.The findings of this article are taken from Plan International's upcoming "Because I Am a Girl: State of the World's Girls" report being released Sept. 22.
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