By Constance Ndeleo
The online super highway is one of the greatest gifts technology has brought to us, with enormous advantages especially during these unprecedented times. The internet and social media has proved to be a critical platform for girls, to raise concerns about issues that confront them and to provide avenues to express themselves and socialize among their peers.
Technology has eased our way of life while Covid-19 has forced us to adapt to the new normal leaving us no room but to engage with the online space for communication, entertainment, education etc.
The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under age 18, who are poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers the world has ever seen.
Technology has also opened up opportunities for girls to grow their networks and learn digital and transferable skills that will prepare them for life and work but also brought about digital divide.
Digital divide is also present along gender lines in many humanitarian contexts, with differing rates of access to and use of various technologies.
However, in recent times the crisis is trickling into the virtual space, turning the lifeline of the internet into a hostile space with increasing numbers of online gender-violence such as girls/young women experiencing online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images/posts without consent.
Online perpetrator have even taken a step ahead to create a trusted relationship with victims especially girls, where they groom and lure them into physical meetings turning into cases of child trafficking and kidnapping.
Below is the story of a 13year old Kenyan girl who went missing after months of being in contact with online fraudster teachers only a day before she was supposed to be taken back to school by her parents.
The Story of 13 year old Winnie
Winnie is a 13 year old girl who attended a primary boarding school in Kenya until the Covid-19 pandemic struck and forced her and every other child in Kenya to go back home due to the government restrictions that led to closure of schools in order to combat the spread of the virus.
Winnie being a KCPE candidate, she indulged herself into learning online as many of her peers have been doing since March in order to keep up with her studies and revision for her final year examinations.
The 13 year old signed up for free online classes allegedly being offered by a group of teachers and she thought the offer would benefit her as she prepared for her final exams thus immersed herself into studying online.
Winnie had been in contact with these said online teachers for a while as they would give her test and collect the papers for marking. The back and forth went on for a while and the test results would come with a mobile number written on it in order for the candidate to call back and seek clarification on where she went wrong.
The game went on for couple of times until the ill-fated day came. Winnie was preparing to go back to school on Monday when she was met by these turn of events. She asked for permission from her mother on Sunday to go and play with her friends only not to return. She was persuaded and trafficked.
Winnie was kidnapped by the said online teachers after months of being groomed online and enticed into physical meeting. The candidate was reported missing on the 11th October 2020.
The class eight pupil was trafficked from Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi only to be found a week later on the Sunday 18th October 2020 in Kisumu city.
This is just one among the stories of cyber-crimes.
Despite the pre-existing online challenges before the pandemic; two problems arising from the use of digital technology and the press is the gender digital divide. Girls and young women have reported feeling insecure to use the virtual space if they are going to be body shamed or called to meet certain standards for one to fit into the ‘societal’ expectations of beauty standard.
Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, according to U.N. figures, with 1 in 3 adolescent girls from the poorest households having never been to school. This shows that internet accessibility to these girls is limited thus most of them are unable to follow up with the online learning as proposed by most governments. It means internet accessibility is a challenge and they have been left behind.
According to a report by UNESCO, schooling of girls is critical to advancing gender equality. The report further elaborates that, ‘despite an increase across all levels of education, girls are still more likely to suffer exclusion than boys, an outcome it said is exacerbated by the current pandemic.’
Globally, school closure has affected more than 1.5 billion students, which means that they need to access the internet for education, social interactions and other vital information but they couldn’t do so due to various reasons like: Poverty.
Evidence shows that girls have lower access to technology than boys and the gender digital divide remains largest in the worlds list of countries, where women are less likely to own mobile phones than men. Without access to technology and the internet, girls and women will have limited opportunities to participate in our ever more digital society
This pandemic is unravelling decades of progress for girls’ equality setting them back in countless ways. Covid-19 is keeping girls from choosing how they communicate and use online spaces as they have been boxed into feeling inferior especially due to online sexual harassment. Thus, they don’t enjoy equal rights.