During the past five years at least five major mobile learning initiatives have been implemented in Africa that sought to directly benefit women and girls, or which included women and girls and provided some evidence of benefits to them. The Jokko Initiative (Senegal), Project ABC (Niger), the Somali Youth Livelihoods Project (Somalia), Nokia Life Tools (Nigeria), and M4Girls (South Africa) are interventions that used mobile devices to teach literacy, numeracy, maths, and/or employability skills and provide learning opportunities for people (often primarily of the female gender) who may not otherwise receive this instruction. While the potential for women and girls in Africa to leverage mobile phones for educational purposes has been demonstrated in these cases, there remain challenges to making these opportunities sustainable.
In December 2012, UNESCO held a Regional Consultation Workshop titled “Developing Literacy through Mobile Phones – Empowering Women and Girls” with a regional focus on Africa. Apart from the M4Girls project, each of the aforementioned projects was presented at the workshop by people who had direct involvement in the project implementation. It was apparent that each of the implementers was passionate about their projects – and for good reason since the projects have helped realise encouraging outcomes for the intended beneficiaries. Yet, the most interesting viewpoints raised came from invited guests who attended on behalf of organisations working to promote women’s and girls’ education and information and communication technologies (ICTs) use, including the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).
While most attendees were enthusiastic about the potential of mobile learning for women and girls in Africa, it was also emphasised that much work remains to be done if communities are to benefit from women’s and girls’ use of mobile devices for educational purposes. While mobile device growth has been phenomenal on the continent, there still remains a sizeable gap between women’s and girls’ ownership of mobile devices, based in part on cost factors. Even if a woman or girl owns a mobile device, considerations such as having the wherewithal to afford electricity to charge phones and pay for credit for calls, text messages, or mobile-based Internet access can have a profound effect on the ability to continue gender-focused mobile learning projects that do not have external funding support. Additionally, it has been elsewhere documented that in some cases the need to own and use a mobile phone has rendered the technology a tool of manipulation: Women and girls in Africa can be drawn into harmful relationships with other people that damage their reputation in their communities or subject them to harassment and abuse because some people offer mobile phones as a “gift” at social and personal costs often higher than what is initially understood by the people who receive them.
One of the most important themes to emerge during the workshop was the need to involve men and boys in mobile learning activities designed to benefit women and girls. Gender-themed mobile learning projects sometimes focus on supporting women and girls only, often to the detriment of the project’s sustainability if awareness-raising is also not done with the men and boys that live in the communities where projects are implemented. The Jokko Initiative provides examples of how men and boys can be involved in a few ways: Women and girls who participated in the project trained their male counterparts on information they learned (including how to use mobile phones), and also shared important community messages that men and boys received via SMS.
The UNESCO workshop was a much-needed multi-stakeholder gathering of people from civil society, government, academia and industry who share the goal to boost the mobile learning potential for women and girls in Africa. As more gender-focused mobile-based educational opportunities are developed on the continent, not only will women and girls need to be consulted at inception about project design and desired outcomes, but also conversations need to take place about how to make mobile technologies and services increasingly affordable for economically disadvantaged populations, as well as the roles that men and boys can assume in the push to attain the benefits that mobile learning can help bring.
At this year’s eLearning Africa, the field of gender and mobile learning will be an important topic within the discussion of how the learning game is changing in Africa – and serve as a starting point for deeper analysis of the socioeconomic and cultural factors that impact its potential.