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The Power of Technology for Girls in COVID-19 Digital Response

By Wayan Vota on August 5, 2020

tega covid-19 girl effect

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit women and girls hard. Beyond the threat of the virus itself, they face a heightened risk of gender-based violence, economic stress and also a lack of access to education, healthcare and sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services.

Yet, despite the immense coverage of COVID-19 digital response, there is a real lack of data and understanding about girls’ experiences of lives under lockdown. Rarely do we hear about girls’ lives from the perspective of girls themselves.

This has consequences. We know that adolescent girls are one of the hardest groups to reach in societies. Coupled with this, there is a risk that hard-won gains for girls slip backwards as a result of the pandemic. Without the inclusion of girls’ perspectives, solutions to support them during this crisis – both short and longer term – won’t be as effective as they could be.

Hear Her Voice

For the past two months Girl Effect has been listening to girls’ experiences, challenges and needs in response to Covid-19. We’ve launched ‘Hear Her Voice: a unique research project giving 25 girls in five countries (Bangladesh, India, Malawi, Nigeria and the U.S) a platform to report on their experiences of life in lockdown – in their own voice – via digital diaries.

The project has gathered striking and intimate accounts of the girls’ experiences of life in lockdown in close to real time, enabling us to understand girls’ struggles including maintaining livelihoods, nutrition and menstrual health. Girls have shared accounts of isolation, as well as positive reflections on the ability to develop new skills, connecting with family and studying.

These girls usually work as Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors (TEGAs), Girl Effect’s girl-operated digital research tool, that allows girls to collect close to real-time insights into the lives of their peers.

This unique approach unlocks the open and honest conversations that might otherwise be lost or not included when collecting data in traditional ways, enabling us to view the complexities of a girl’s life through her peers. Face to face research is on pause due to COVID-19, so TEGAs turned the cameras on themselves to create weekly digital diaries via our bespoke TEGA app.

The need for accurate data to understand girls’ lives and needs has never been truer than it is now. We can’t wait six months to find out what girls’ needs are how this pandemic is affecting them, or whether certain interventions are working or not. Findings from this research tell us that mobiles have been a lifeline for girls during the pandemic. Through mobile access, girls have in turn accessed education and information and been able to communicate with the world.

Rich Insights from TEGAs

Girl Effect is using insights from the project to design informative and credible content to support girls’ specific needs during the pandemic. A selection of the rich insights from the project are set out below.

tega covid-19 girl effect

Girls are repurposing their phones to support their needs during lockdown. But access to mobile data can be a barrier. 

‘It has made me learn more about technology. Because it has made me want to be part of training online, I have learnt how to connect with others online, how to communicate with others online since there’s this lockdown.’ (Mufy, 22, Kano, Nigeria)

The TEGAs on all three continents told us that access to a mobile phone and data had become essential to them during lockdown for access to online education, beating isolation and gathering vital information about Covid-19. Watch this short film we created to hear directly from the girls themselves.

  • Access to online education: Mobile access heightens girls’ ability to study. Either to access online school where it’s available or work independently. Girls told us that they do not always have the money to access bundles to get online in lockdown. Or they do not have consistent access to a device, many girls share phones.
  • Beating isolation: Mobiles have also been a valuable way to stay connected to others. We found that girls suffered feelings of isolation and hopelessness in lockdown, feeling the mental health impacts as strongly at the economic ones. A mobile allowed them to connect to friends and family in a way that helped them cope.
  • Gathering vital information: Mobiles proved to be a tool to get accurate information about COVID-19. Girls use their phone to myth-bust the rumours they hear around them about the symptoms, spread and treatment for COVID-19.

The ability to get the most out of their devices is predicated on girls’ access to data and having a good quality smartphone.

‘Many areas are not even covered with the internet. So, what would those students do? They’d be deprived of these facilities if online classes are held. Then again, I also cannot afford that much data. ’ (Rafi, 20 Dhaka, Bangladesh)

As well as understanding the opportunities mobile access presented during lockdown, the girls also reported spending too much time on social media, struggled with online learning and assessing the accuracy of COVID-19 information spread via social media or Whatsapp groups.

India spotlight: Girls in Jaipur and Munger told us that they rely on their phones to cope, learn and communicate.

In India we used the diaries to help us understand more about their mobile use during lockdown. The data that came back told us that mobiles have taken on an elevated role in keeping girls on track by maintaining their focus on their studies and life goals. Rashmi (20, Jaipur) says:

‘Earlier, when I got time, I used to listen to music or watch dance videos…But after lockdown, I use it only for online classes and my data finishes because of that’.

The videos also told us that TEGAs have downloaded apps and sought reliable information about COVID-19 to equip themselves against the many rumours about the virus they hear in the communities.

As well as the practical, TEGAs have found that the phone’s more traditional function of keeping them entertained through videos and games and connected to friends and family, as well as (sometimes secret) boyfriends was invaluable whilst isolating.

This data from girls in Munger and Jaipur clearly shows the potential of mobile access for girls during the pandemic. But girls still face financial and logistical barriers to accessing data. Many girls do not have their own device or share a phone can still be stigmatised by parents.

tega covid-19 girl effect

From insights into action – using the data to design for girls’ short and long-term needs

Our youth brand Chhaa Jaa inspires, informs and equips girls in India with the skills and confidence to navigate adolescence – estimated to have reached 5.5m girls through its social media channels. Taking insights from the research about girls’ need for reliable information, we created youth friendly COVID-19 content for Chhaa Jaa to share essential preventative health measures free of jargon and link to credible sources.

Hear Her Voice data showed that girls’ SRHR needs were not being addressed. Girls in India were struggling to access sanitary pads – because of limited mobility during lockdown.

‘My periods came and I was not having pads…What shall I do? Where should I buy them? I asked my brother to check which shops are open. And then I told him that I require pads and asked him to buy them…I was also hesitating while asking him. I was wondering what he might think or say to me’. (Carol, 23, Munger)

Hearing girls’ concerns has accelerated our efforts to use Chhaa Jaa to digitally connect girls to SRH services such as helplines, apps, and online doc consultation services which are more relevant than ever in a post-Covid world – including soon trialling home delivery of contraception and sanitary pads. We also ran a campaign during Menstrual Hygiene Week to encourage girls to take their health seriously and talk openly about menstruation.

The Hear Her Voice project is raising girls’ voices to ensure that their perspectives and needs shape a more equal future.

By the Girl Effect team: Sneha Chaturvedi: Content Lead, Aparna Raj: Research manager  and Isabel Quilter: Senior Research manager

Filed Under: Featured, Women in Tech
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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2 Comments to “The Power of Technology for Girls in COVID-19 Digital Response”

  1. Neil Patel says:

    Interesting initiative! You may be interested in this. I am happy to connect you with Ellie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClwjtQF2rwk