International Women's Day: Can Technology Close the Gap for Girls and Women?

In 1906, a woman by the name of Welthy Fisher launched a school in China to give girls the skills they needed in order to play a greater role in their society. The teaching tools this 27-year-old woman relied upon were books and chalkboards, paper and pens. Now, more than a century later, the organization she founded finds itself in an era where information and communication technologies (ICT) are being used at an increasing rate to improve education and learning environments. But will these new tools really make a difference for girls and women in disadvantaged areas across the globe?

Around the world today, girls and young women still continue to struggle to complete school, fight to secure work and to keep jobs that are often less desirable and poorly paid. (We need not look much further than our own shores to know "women are still poorer, despite massive strides." While Welthy would be pleased that the world acknowledges the importance of girls' and women's education on International Women's Day, March 8th, without the appropriate resources and support to complete their education and to gain the skills to secure safe work in a competitive environment, girls in particular are increasingly left vulnerable to unemployment, vulnerable to sexual and labor exploitation, trafficking, poor health, violence, and HIV infection.

Despite global efforts to target and improve services to women and girls, young girls in all corners of the world still continue to need:

Access to high quality and relevant education, with teachers trained to help girls meet the challenges of a rapidly developing 21st century
Support for school completion, which includes tangible support such as scholarship assistance, as well as changes in societal attitudes towards girls' education through gender-sensitivity training and mentoring
Relevant life and work skills, which means not only revamping curricula to include workplace skills and the use of new technologies, but ensuring that teachers are also equipped with technology skills to engage students and enhance learning to prepare girls for work
'Social capital' to draw on while finding work, by engaging young women in local communities and expanded social networks, and developing contacts and support systems, such as mentors.

Can information and communication technologies be integrated into classrooms in a way that engages girls with life and work skills building, keeps them in school and connects them to the support networks they need? Will adding emerging technologies to the list of teaching and learning tools help in the advancement of girls?

World Education and the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation think so, and in recognizing this value, have partnered together to implement ConnectED, a three-year $6 million global initiative to provide educational and digital skills training opportunities for over 13,000 children and adolescents (70% of whom will be girls and young women) in disadvantaged areas. The program will target youth in 7 countries. In line with existing World Education programs that promote workplace preparation and reduce youth vulnerability and exclusion, ConnectEd will weave the use of information and communications technology to transform the nature of learning. ConnectEd will ultimately ensure that youth -- especially girls -- will be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and healthy behaviors that can help them gain secure employment and livelihoods, reduce their vulnerability, and put an end to the cycle of disadvantage.

Drawing on Alcatel-Lucent employees, ConnectEd will tap into their expertise in communications technology to implement program activities. Volunteers will use their expertise in communications technology to help with program implementation and learning activities, while also serving as role models, mentors and advisors to the young people

Today in too many countries around the world, too many young women reach adulthood lacking the skills needed to prosper in our changing world. World Education and the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation will be able to work with remote and underserved schools and communities in ConnectEd's target countries to improve educational services, skills training, and their connection to the digital world -- whether it be computer labs or mobile phones and Internet.

We will not know for a while whether these new tools and technologies will really close the gap for girls and women. But Welthy Fisher would certainly be pleased that we are trying.