Digital Access Can Lead to Higher Hopes for Young Women in Haiti
My name is Courtney Jackson. I am a sales and marketing professional from North Carolina, and for more than two years I've served as the lead project catalyst for an initiative called High Hopes Haiti (HHH), supported by US-headquartered, volunteer-driven nonprofit Mothering Across Continents. I'll be heading back to Haiti for a project visit in late April, ever more convinced that digital access is an essential but under-utilized path to opportunity for the country's women.
In rural, northern Haiti, the average woman may earn $100 a year, well below the global standard for “extreme poverty.” With targeted vocational skills – especially “non-traditional training” including English language, computer literacy and basic business management, women have potential to earn $100 per month and more. Where our HHH project focuses, 50% of girls will never got to school. Of those who do and then manage to graduate from high school, there is a near 100% likelihood that they will live in poverty or extreme poverty.
The reason: it’s a major challenge to provide meaningful vocational skills training for women – the kind that spurs real development, especially in rural Haiti where more than 70% of the population lives. Energy and resources are concentrated in urban settings, specifically Port-au-Prince. In these circumstances, over and again, I witness firsthand how digital access could create a paradigm shift. That’s why I'm striving through the HHH program to combine leadership development, English language training and vocational computer skills. And limited digital access for young women ages 15 to 30 is the essential barrier that we aspire and are working to overcome.
We began in 2011 after receiving an award from the Waveplace Foundation to provide 75 XO laptops to three teachers and schools between Cap Haitien and the remote region of Tovar/Tremesse/Grison-Garde. Our vision was to also provide young women high school students with access to the laptops. In turn, they would begin to mentor the teachers and children on effective use. Much was achieved. There was a lot of excitement. And we built on these experiences by providing the first-ever “life and career dream workshops” to these young women, including personal story books created with aid of computers. Eyes opened with regard to life and career options.
Yet, there is so much more to do to reinforce the value of computers and digital access in their lives and career development. More than once, I’ve accompanied a small cadre of volunteer computing studies graduate students from the US to work with the young women, including a graduate student at the University of Delaware named Eric McGinnis who is a real computing instructor rock star. Last summer he worked an internship at Johns Hopkins University around his plans to spend several weeks training our young women. We and they love him!
Strides are made each time there is an intensive training or new experience. But the community site of our program faces inconsistent Internet access and the disappointment of more than one satellite provider failing. Through the HHH program we’ve trained, coached and mentored as many as 30 young women at any given time, including 15 who completed a first intensive summer institute in August 2013. Through May 2014, we have a system and liaisons in place to keep facilitating English language training and field visits to and from successful entrepreneurial businesses.
But I know that consistent access to the Internet, email, SKYPE and the ability to “research the world” from Haiti would be a real breakthrough in the young women’s development. I’m also acutely aware that plans to keep adding new cohorts to the August 2014 summer institute and beyond would be greatly enhanced and more impactful to the extent that we can accelerate digital access and see significant changes in these women’s experiences of empowerment by mid-2016. (I often say that “I’m committed for life to the young women of Haiti, but I love short- and mid-term progress, too!)
So, what’s the plan in the face of these challenges?
We’re waiting to hear about a grant from a women’s international fund in New York that would provide laptops for the young women to share and aircards to give them mobility and virtual access. I’m excited to meet with the women and our Haitian women project liaisons again on my trip in April. New telecenters are opening across Haiti, and one of them is outside Cap Haitien, accessible to current and future participants of our program. We’ve been asked to consider being the anchor leadership, mentoring and vocational program provider through the center, which is exciting.
I was surprised, though, to learn that plans for the telecenter did not include Internet access and computer training. If an aspect of young women’s economic empowerment is full participation in society, and digital access equals full electronic participation in society and the world, the absence of Internet access just doesn’t make sense to me. So, let the collaborations begin. If our mandate must expand to be catalysts that help facilitate additional technology and tools for the center in service of the young women we care about, so be it. I’ll try my best. Sometimes, service simply means doing your best to fill a void that others may not know exists.