Stories of Access and Digital literacy from Pakistan
My father was often told by members of local community and some relatives to not pay attention to my education because I was “just a girl” and my father would not get any “return on investment” by spending money on my education. I am thankful to my father that he chose to ignore the advice.
My father was of the opinion that embracing new technologies was the way forward and he chose to invest in me despite the traditional mindset that surrounded him. So, despite being from a developing country and despite being a girl, I had an enabling environment to learn and experiment with the new technology and tools while I was a student. When you are a student, an enabling environment comprises of understanding parents or family who can afford and choose to pay for the services involved, physical access to the hardware (computer etc), an internet connection, the freedom to utilize these tools and explore them and occasional technical support.
How did I learn? Learning digital skills was a long, slow, sometimes painstaking but fun journey of learning by doing. The connection was always slow or non-existent, and my system needed to be rebooted more than I was comfortable with or had patience for. I had to make regular calls to the service provider to do something about the Internet connection but during the times that the connection actually worked, I made sure I made full use of the opportunity. Despite having a desktop computer, I would always have a full backup of documents and files in print, in case the system died on me again at a very inconvenient time! Technologies change, they improve and get updated. I either learned by doing or by experience sharing with few others who were involved with similar work or use similar tools. There was no platform where I could go and learn it all as different fields require and demand different sets of skills and tools. In my case, I had more people coming to ask me when they ran into a problem than the other way around.
The young girls and women from my community, who came to my vocational training center were often intrigued by the desktop computer I had. Sometimes, they would innocently ask me to turn it on for them so they could see what I did with it. Unfortunately, back in 2003 there was no YouTube and most of the content on the internet was in English and not in the local language. So there was nothing much for the young girls to see or do. But they would still be happy to sit there and watch me fiddle with the keyboard. The lack of local content made it a huge challenge for me to start any educational or awareness class with the women group I worked with because of their educational background.
I realized how important it is for other young women in my community to learn the skills I had and how important it was to teach them and empower them in a way that enables them to tell their own stories to the rest of the world. How important it is for them to speak up, and connect with others who might be going through same challenges and problems. When I finally started to develop a digital literacy project for the educated group of young women in my community, it was yet another journey of learning and dealing with stereotypes. This group of young women felt the need to learn digital literacy skills for their educational work, social interaction and to upgrade their professional skills but most of them could not afford to have a computer at home due to financial restrictions. The monthly costs of having a computer and internet connection is still unaffordable.
And then there are the cultural hurdles. When we (women) air our opinions about women rights or women empowerment on online and new media platforms, the reaction we get from men (and sometimes women!) in our society is bordering on threatening. In our society, boys are raised to believe they are superior and more important than girls, therefore empowering girls or girls with their own voice and opinions is seen as a threat and it is the duty of every ‘righteous’ male to teach this vocal girl or woman about her place in society and her cultural values.
But that’s not all… when the shop owner in Lahore city (Pakistan) heard why I wanted to buy all those computers, he said: “I hope you do realize how the computers and internet have damaged our generation of boys who go to the internet cafes. Now you want to do the same to the girls?!” The shopkeeper was referring to the influence and role of local Internet cafes that had become mini-cinemas for underage (male) children with unmonitored access to adult entertainment material.
The shopkeeper may have a point but that one point was not the whole story. The trend did play a great role in making these internet cafes unsafe for female population. Today, the Internet perpetration is Pakistan is sixteen percent. Due to low Internet penetration, and lack of skill learning platforms that cater for local needs, the potential and the little resources that exist are going to waste. After the recent online activism stories from the Arab world, the perceptions might be slowly changing but speaking to a local in favor of Internet as a tool for development is still tough.
After we finally set up the technology center, other challenges were countless. We had to bring computers from hundreds of miles away; first with a local bus, followed by a donkey cart! Internet connection was slow and unreliable and we would spend hours trying to reach the customer service or technician to look into the problem. And those were the few hours when we had power. We could not afford to buy solar panels and the people to maintain them were rare because the technology is still not very popular in Pakistan. Generators or UPS were not considered because of the running costs and the increasing prices of petrol to run them. Due to these challenges, the girls who would have to travel half a day to get to the center were very discouraged because there was no way of telling if there would be power at a given time or not.
The governments in developing countries like Pakistan need to step in and make the energy shortage issue and affordable Internet a high priority. When I was lobbying for my technology center in Layyah city, I went to the provincial government of Punjab and asked them for a building to host trainings in. I was amazed at their reaction. The provincial government was not only willing to let us host training in their women empowerment center but were also willing to partner with me for trainings across the province! The reason behind their interest was their lack of resources, skilled management and staff to implement such projects and initiatives on their own.
Unfortunately, providing affordable internet access to rural and remote areas is still not high on many government’s priority list due to the many other pressing issues they face. At the same time, digital literacy skills, like the right to education, are pivotal to the economic and social empowerment of local communities, particularly for women, in remote and rural areas of the world.
Universal Access across the globe is among the top seven priorities in the global Internet governance debate. Pakistan is a country that is plagued with corruption, security issues, energy crisis, poverty and health issues, we have no choice but to look towards local leaders, individual innovators and social entrepreneurs to generate their own solutions for addressing the issue of access, capacity building and economic development through ICTs.