"We would like to know how to use that ... smartphone"

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Image description: Overhead photo of a group of people with phone

Overhead photo of a group of people with phone, including a woman and girls. Image source: Author

Smartphones and women as entry point to inclusive ICT opportunities for the girl-child.

A number of times especially in the rural, children’s access to education and exposure to information communication technologies (ICTs), especially for the girl-child, are dependent on the perceptions and beliefs by the parents, particularly the mothers who have a lot of influence on them.

In Karamoja region, North Eastern Uganda for instance, it is common practice for children to be picked from class by their parents during lessons to go and attend to garden work or do house chores at home. “Our major challenge is, a parent will come and take the child to go and work in the garden, even when the child is in the middle of a lesson and our girls are the most affected. Sometimes they return to class after the work but sometimes they don’t until another day”, said the Head Mistress of Lorengechora Primary School, in Napak District, Karamoja region, during our visit in the region in October 2019. This kind of practice has impacted the students’ class performance, with some dropping out completely from school, therefore missing out on opportunities.

During one of our learning visits with a few international guests in the community in Northern Uganda in late 2019, I casually asked a group of women who we had visited – “If given an opportunity to learn something, what would you choose?”. In response, two of them said and gestured in unison, “That thing you are all holding”, pointing to my smartphone. “We would like to know about it, how to turn it on and use it”. Even without a clear plan of how it would be possible, given the limited resources, I promised to go back and teach them how to use smartphones because it was an opportunity for us to ensure the mothers understand the benefits that come with the internet and ICTs as a whole and possibly encourage them to allow their daughters to benefit from it.

In response, two of them said and gestured in unison, “That thing you are all holding”, pointing to my smartphone. “We would like to know about it, how to turn it on and use it”.

Formal versus the informal meetings

Beneath our informal training meetings with the women are layers of practical learning, thoughtful conversations, and strategy formulation as each participant freely shared their thoughts and experiences in their local language, in an open space setting, under the shade of a tree. Much appreciation goes to Dr Revi Sterling, a Gender and Technology Advocate, for the gifts of smartphones, larger computer monitor and printer that we were able to deliver to the community at the time.

The non-intimidating environment and language of communication during our training enabled the participants to freely react, participate and contribute to the discussions and learning. “Sometimes I may go to the hospital to visit a sick friend. When I return home, I want to show other people that I was in the hospital. How can I do that?” asked one of the women participants. With such a description, we understood what their interests were and this set the areas of priority of our training.

“Sometimes I may go to the hospital to visit a sick friend. When I return home, I want to show other people that I was in the hospital. How can I do that?”

Our two days’ training sessions comprised of understanding the benefits that come with internet and ICTS, with examples, understanding smartphone in comparison to the basic phones which a few of the women participants already had. We also went on to describe what “apps” are and learned how to download an app, how to make calls, save and retrieve contacts, take photos, selfies and videos, retrieve and view photos and videos. We went through how to tap their Wi-Fi and upload internet data bundles. On social media, we tackled particularly Whatsapp, where we learned how Whatsapp works, how to upload a profile photo, send texts and photos to another Whatsapp contact, retrieve and read/view photos and videos sent by another person and to use voice recording using both the Voice recorder app and Whatsapp. We also talked about using the computer facilities available at the centre to store their content such as videos, photos, and voice recordings.

 One woman shows another a smartphone

“I used to believe that using the smartphones affect the blood flow on the body”

The changed mindsets

Before the training, the women had different beliefs and perceptions they had about smartphones and computers. “I used to believe that using the smartphones affect the blood flow on the body”, said one of the women, who was excited that she was now able to use smartphones without worrying about her health. Another elder lady had shifted from her son’s place because the son always took photographs of her and stored it on a computer. She thought her son wanted to “make money” by selling her away because she thought computers are used for selling people.

She thought her son wanted to “make money” by selling her away because she thought computers are used for selling people.

The second day of our engagement saw more participants join the team to learn about smartphones, particularly young girls between 12 and 20, who were mainly daughters of the women who participated in the training. It turned out that the girls had been invited by their mothers to participate in the training. We attribute this achievement to the clarifications on wrong beliefs and perceptions about ICTs and the internet that the women had.

The girls were very enthusiastic and quick to learn. Shortly, the mothers and daughters were on their own, playing around with the phones but of course, the girls were fighting to use the phones more.

The Lessons

“In-fact, this phone is easier to use compared to the type we know”, said one of the women. Other ideas from the women about how smartphones would help them were:

  • Motivating their colleagues: In their group, the women with HIV/AIDS encourage and remind each other to be consistent in taking their medication. But among them are those who tend to lose hope, hide and stop taking their medication. By the time the rest of the team remember to make visits to them, their sickness would have worsened and physically visible. The team takes it upon themselves to encourage such members to resume their medication until they regain back their normal life. The women noted that smartphones would come in handy in such scenarios where their members feel discouraged and withdraw from taking medication. They would take their photographs in their very sick state for reference purposes and store them. Once their sick colleagues regain their life or when they feel tempted to again stop taking medication, they would retrieve and show such photos as a reminder of the state in which she was previously.

“In-fact, this phone is easier to use compared to the type we know”

  • Planning for their harvests and dry season: During harvest time, most of the people in the community tend to misuse and sell away their produce at give-away prices and later experience starvation during the long dry spell. The women raised that smartphones can be used to record videos showing harvests and their hard work. They can then show the videos when those who sold off their food at give-away prices or misused food are experiencing starvation. This will be a reminder to them about all the food they harvested previously so that in the future, they can plan better.
  • Land grabbing and threats: Some of the women have received verbal threats over their land but when they report about the threats, their oppressors deny and no one believes them because they do not have evidence. They see voice recorder app as a tool they could use to secretly record such threats and keep as evidence in situations where they would need to convince other people about what happened

Conclusion

In her recent tweet on the ITU report “Measuring Digital Development –Mobile phone ownership”, ITU’s Doreen Bogdan-Martin wrote: “By lowering the cost of mobile handsets, we scale up progress towards #connectivityForAll and empower people everywhere to participate and flourish in the digital economy”.

It is evident that in rural communities and Africa in general, the different beliefs about technology, most of which are based on false rumours, coupled with issues around affordable access are a huge contributor to the significantly wider gender gap in mobile phone ownership and use of the internet, especially for women and girls. Since women directly influence the lives of their daughters, a change in their beliefs and exposure to the benefits of the internet and ICTs can lead to increasing numbers of women and girls who use the internet and own mobile handsets.