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Internet, schoolchildren and rural Pakistan: How to get community buy-in including for girls

By lisac - Posted on 09 March 2010

School girls in Pakistan during a computer classCALGARY (LC and KAH for APC) – In rural Pakistan girls schools are sometimes burned to the ground, so when twenty-nine year old Huda Sarfraz and her team started to teach Punjabi girls how to create websites and use online chat, she feared they might be run out of town. However the girls clamoured to learn as much as the boys did and --overturning societal taboos-- over-subscribed for the extra-curricular classes – ending up producing prize-winning websites. As a result of exposure to APC's Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM), and despite their own cultural reservations, Sarfraz's team focused specifically on getting girls and women teachers involved. “Initially, we only saw two groups to work with -- students and teachers. However because of GEM, we looked at them as four—girl students, boy students, women teachers and men teachers,” says Sarfraz.


Internet, schoolchildren and rural Pakistan: How to get community buy-in including for girls

It was by coincidence that 29 year-old software developer Huda Sarfraz got involved in the Dareecha project. It was the first time the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP) had directly taken on the social perspective of a project by taking technology to the people, and the Lahore resident decided she would stay on and give it a try. Huda, through Dareecha (meaning “window”), set about training school children and teachers from the rural Punjab to use the internet so that they could eventually create their own content.

And create content they did – with their new skills, students and teachers in rural villages created 57 new, locally-relevant school and community web sites, which they presented in a competition held by Dareecha in June and August 2009. The judging panel, comprised of government officials, academia and ICT experts couldn't help but notice the strong presence of women and girls among the winners, a sign that the Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM), an evaluation methodology the Dareecha team had used to compliment other planning methods for the project, helped them get through to a segment of the population other more traditional planning methods may not have achieved: women and girls.

In fact, the way they dealt with the different needs of both sexes meant that girls too could learn about computers – and the young girls were not letting this opportunity go. “Women teachers were quite insistent in getting the girls involved,” recounts Sarfraz, “and there was more than one incident where girls were in tears because they wanted to join sessions that were already full.”

With about seven computers to a lab, the quotas were the same for boys and girls – about fourteen students per session. Because the girls were so persistent, a second, afternoon session was set up for a total of 30 girls. “We didn't know what to expect but the girls were very insistent. We were also surprised that the parents were so willing to let them come to classes during the summer and at irregular hours.” explains Sarfraz. She also recalls the story of two girls, the daughters of a head master at a boys school, who felt the training was so important that he took it upon himself to bring his daughters to the boys training. “I asked our trainers about how the boys reacted to this and was told that he was a much respected teacher, and nobody could say anything to the girls because of that, and things went on as usual.” The fact that the girls were accepted without question in the boys classes represents a significant shift in mentality by the community, and the father himself: “for me, it was the best part of the project” beams Huda.

However this was not the case for everyone – Sarfraz recalls a woman teacher who missed training sessions because she was not allowed to travel without a chaperone. In an effort to accommodate to the different needs of women, the team made arrangements for the woman's father to stay overnight as well. Their efforts were rewarded when the teacher later attended one of the sessions and the awards ceremony in Lahore, something that Sarfraz describes as a milestone for all involved.

In a country where rural girls schools are sometimes burnt down, Huda is amazed the Dareecha team were never rejected by the villages because, while burning schools is one extreme, more common is the generally negative sentiment towards women gaining access to technology and new communication channels, because there is fear that the exposure to new ideas and people will have a negative impact on girls. The desire to participate by so many girls in the programme, and their strong presence at the awards ceremonies (both as attendees and award recipients) sent out a clear message: we are willing and capable of taking part in the information society.

Dareecha reaches girls and makes a real difference to them thanks to GEM

It is these cultural restrictions and obstacles to girls' and women's participation that are so often overlooked that GEM tries to address: breaking through old views about mobility, personal safety, lack of personal freedom, and traditional responsibilities in the home, etc. For the Dareecha team, GEM helped make the societal differences between men and women that they had never questioned before become explicit, and being able to formally address these inequalities allowed them to design a project that would make a real difference in the lives of rural boys and girls and their communities.

The Dareecha team used GEM throughout the different stages of the project: planning, implementation, and evaluation. “If we hadn't learned about GEM, we would not have analysed our data with respect to gender,” says Sarfraz. “Initially, we only saw two groups to work with: students and teachers. However because of GEM, we looked at them as four—girl students, boy students, women teachers and men teachers.”

Not only did this data breakdown by gender give the Dareecha team a better understanding of the scope of the different realities related to ICTs for the groups, it allowed the team to plan the training sessions for maximum comprehension by all groups. Instead of lumping all the students into one group with a male trainer, female students were given a female trainer and boys were given a male trainer. Public schools in Pakistan are segregated to begin with, so since it was not culturally acceptable to send men into girls schools, a female only team was selected for the female students. Even the way the material was presented, was catered to the different groups according to Sarfraz “the books we prepared were the same, but the slide shows were customised for each group.” For example, slide shows included gender specific examples and questions, according to the different interests of genders, like local political figures that interested the boys, and menhdi or henna design for girls. Huda and her team also ensured they followed social norms when teaching about emails, and created separate groups for girls and boys and were also extra careful about online security: “we thought it would have a higher impact in gaining acceptability from girls schools and parents as compared to boys, because people generally don't worry about who boys communicate with and how, but are more concerned about the safety of girls.”

More than a simple planing, monitoring and evaluation approach, GEM becomes a way to see daily interactions and social norms though a “gender-specific lens”, GEM allows evaluators to dig deeper and think about why things are the way they are, and how to consciously address these reasons through project design and implementation.GEM turned a social technology initiative into a process of change for all those involved – the Dareecha team, students, teachers and community members in these rural areas – and this is what made Dareecha so successful.


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