“Computing is too important to be left to man” Professor Karen Spark could not have said it better!
When we started our digital literacy initiative in Zimbabwe, the goals were very clear. We wanted more young women to gain advanced computer skills. The objective was to get them started with software development early and for them to gain enough interest to take it up as a career. It was initially meant to be a celebration of an era where a young woman from sub-Saharan Africa could dream of a career as an app developer and make it a reality. It is an era that is totally different from the early 2000s when I qualified as a software developer, then development was a new concept and very few had an appreciation of what it entailed. In a very exclusive job market being young and female was a double handicap. I remember knocking on doors with the excitement of the young and ambitious, none opened for me. At times they asked me whether I could use Microsoft office and offered me a receptionist or clerical position. In the end I had to leave my country, even then the job I managed to get at entry level was as an ICT trainer. Fast forward ten years, I was back home and working in women rights focusing a lot on women’s narratives and access to information.
The combination of my training, my previous experience as an ICT trainer and in women’s rights activism brought me to be a place where the goal was formulated. The fourth industrial revolution was coming, women could not stop it but they could gain the skills to fully participate. It was imperative to see more young women getting into what was traditionally a male dominated industry, the very same one that had shut its doors on me earlier in my career. Two years after taking very tiny toddler’s steps our outlook changed. Finally we understood, it was not about tech skills for the sake of tech skills. It was about more than just coding and software development. Yes, the technology gender gap is keeping women out of lucrative jobs in IT but that is just one facet of it. Teaching young girls computer skills and encouraging them to train for jobs in tech is a feminist issue. It is about voice, about creating space for the young women, it is about fighting for women’s rights on a new frontier. This new realizations gave birth to the The PADA Platform.
PADA is the Shona name for the game, hopscotch. The game takes a lot of Zimbabwean women back to the dusty streets of their youths, to the games that afforded them their first dose of sisterhood. We set out to make sure that the platform would not only impart skills but could also play the same role that the games of our childhood played, providing safe spaces to be creative and to express themselves. It is also a platform that we use to raise the consciousness of young women on the politics of the digital and media spaces. Digital skills are important for young women but it is also important to understand how patriarchal models can still be employed to exclude them even when they possess the necessary skills. At the PADA platform we want the young women to understand that the technology gender gap is a result of the systematic exclusion of women that has affected our participation in other spaces. We also want them to understand that if we leave computing to man then we risk reinforcing the stereotypes that giants who have gone before us have worked so hard to break.
When you start conversation about creating a digital literacy and coding initiative for girls from marginalized communities in Harare, it is inevitable that you will be met with skepticism. At times even arrogant opposition. It is hardly regarded as a critical issue for these girls who miss school because they have no sanitary ware. I perfectly understand that on the hierarchy of needs for African girls from marginalized communities coding training sounds frivolous when not properly contextualized. The Covid 19 crisis has actually provided us with an opportunity to conceptualize it. We woke up one day and the internet was the centre of all our educational and professional activities. The crisis is happening to all of us today. It is happening to the privileged male in a developed nation and to a 16 year old girl from a marginalized community in sub –Saharan Africa. The effects, however are not the same. Some have simply migrated to sophisticated online learning platforms. They can access all the information they need on the pandemic from using a reliable and accessible internet connection. In the community where I work in Harare, life has come to a virtual stop. Young girls have been out of school for three months and they can only rely on the re-opening of schools. In the midst of an unpredictable global pandemic there is no guarantee of that happening soon. It is daunting to imagine how the inequalities will have worsened by that day. We have learned that we cannot allow poverty and marginalization to keep us at the fringes of development because when crisis hits, we will suffer harder blows.
When as a young graduate I was excluded from the computing world, I stepped aside and simply applied my time and skills to a space that embraced me. It never occurred to me to stay and fight for space. Now I realize the need to fight that technology gender gap. It is not just about access to tech jobs but it is about filling a gap that can be used to not only further exclude women but to promote their abuse. It is about preparing women to take up space in a world that is emerging. This space exists in the entertainment industry, the information sector as well as in education. As technology takes centre stage in our world, its potential to harm and silence us also grows.
Anyone who follows the gaming world can recall the outrage from feminists when in early 2019 a rape game was announced. The game “Rape Day” was set in a Zombie Apocalypse and the player would simulate a serial rapist and there are no prizes for guessing what winning this game entailed. Of course this came as a shock to most and the resistance was fierce. As much as it was an outrage it was also a perfect opportunity to realise that we have left the world of computing to developers with very little regard to our status as human. The developers of the game described players going on a raping spree as “dark comedy”. The game was banned way before its release but the idea that sexual assault can be a game cannot be banned. It can only be countered.
Part of the research for developing our projects at our platform include visiting public spaces where young people access technology related services. One of these visits early in 2018 was to a gaming den at a shopping centre in a low income suburb in Harare. The place was dark and the sound from the games very violent. Winning means killing after all. Not a single female in the room, a whole world in which very few women are participating. Gaming and gaming development might sound like the most useless form of computing but a close examination of the industry will show otherwise. As much as it is social issue it is also a matter of the exclusion of women from a growing economy that can contribute significantly to women’s empowerment. The gaming industry is growing and according to an article that appeared in the Forbes magazine in November 2019 it is forecast to reach over 300 billion by 2025. The women in that industry are still exposed to harassment and blatant sexism. If this prevails then women will also lose out on yet another opportunity to participate fully and freely in a thriving economy.
Today as a platform we envisage a world with female game developers and gaming champions. A radical idea though,is to do it on our terms and bring our own dynamics to the industry. Sub-saharan Africa presents an opportunity to transform our cultural experiences into a viable gaming industry. Using the games that our young women grew up playing we are now working on providing the game development training for girls. In a changing world young women in Zimbabwe will lose their heritage if these games do not evolve to their smart phones. Some were played in the dust and for girls growing up in urban communities, those are not available anymore. It is the age of concrete driveways, shared homes and apartments. It is also the age of smart phones and children playing on screens for whole days. Young women played more outdoor games than the male counterparts who were content with fighting games and soccer. Women can lead a whole revolution bringing their games to the world of technology and developing gaming characters that resonate with how they want to be represented.
Feminist movements cannot stop the 4th industrial revolution but we can fully participate by empowering women with the skills to develop as well as by develop content that will not contribute to the endangerment of women on and offline. It is time to raise a generation of women who will strategically fill the existing gap by taking up space in every industry that the world of tech presents. We need solutions that respond to our needs as women as well as entertainment that represents us. The very first step is to ensure that we do not leave computing to men. Not at any level!