1 November 2018

Zimbabwe: Girls Speak Out - An Initiative to Teach Girls to Code

With no external source of funding and support, Anoziva Marindire has succeeded in teaching girls to code, opening up prospects in the job market and in their communities that they never had before.

"We are creating an army of women computer coders who will spark social change across Zimbabwe - and help tackle vices like girls being forcibly sold into marriage," Anoziva Marindire, 30, declares boldly.

Tracking down girls aged 14 to24 in Zimbabwe´s lowest income townships and teaching them the computer programming language Java might seem like a misplaced priority. For poor girls in Zimbabwe there are more acute realities of survival, for example access to nutritious food, affording sanitary health products and the welfare of HIV orphans.

However elitist coding might appear, Marindire, a former Africa Union Youth Ambassador, is not daunted by the vast task ahead of her.

In her own words, her movement, Girls Speak Out (GSO), is an initiative that aims to develop "coding skills among young women in Zimbabwe's under-served communities so that technology moves beyond iPhones and laptops to become change tools."

Conditions are grim, she states: "Zimbabwe does not have a single tech app that will enable pregnant women to have access to antenatal data wirelessly, something that would reduce the need to travel to clinics and the resultant financial burden."

The force that drives her could therefore be described as "a noble anger": "A mere 3% of all "coders in Zimbabwe are women. Only 20% of all computer specialists are female - yet women are 52% of the population."

An educational system in ruin

Marindire puts into perspective the years of waste that have left Zimbabwe´s schools, once widely regard as Africa's most advanced, dysfunctional, with girls at a particular disadvantage.

"State schools in Zimbabwe´s townships are crippled; their budgets hollow. There are no digital facilities and unskilled staff - the result of the brain drain - means that students are increasingly graduating without any basic computer know-how. They do not even know how to use Microsoft Word," she says.

This means that for students across Zimbabwe, job prospects are dire. According to Forbes, 90% of graduates are without jobs. "Girls are hardest hit," says Marindire. "With no tech literacy, girls cannot communicate effectively in a growing digital world. 80% of all jobs in Africa will soon require science, maths and technology skills."

She thinks that local family attitudes are lopsided too. "In Zimbabwe´s households, girls clean the dishes and watch over pots in the evening after schools. In contrast, boys go to the Internet cafés, developing their skills in video literacy, e-mail practices or keyboard mastery," she says.

Read: Zimbabwean techpreneur Alvin Chitena: Youth empowerment through coding

Her organisation has compiled some brutal statistics: "In Mufakose, Dzivarasekwa and Mabvuku (the poorest townships in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe) we noticed that out of every 10 girls aged between 14 and 24, only one knew what coding was and only four could use Microsoft Word."

"In comparison, five in every 10 boys knew what coding was, two could even write code, and six used Power Point. The problem is not that girls are not in school, the problem is the quality of schooling," she adds.

Why "Girls Speak Out"?

In 2016, Marindire and her friend Theresa Takafuma founded Girls Speak Out as a follow-up to the Obama era's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Africa4Her campaign.

"Coding is a means to train Zimbabwean girls to produce tech innovation and apps that can help solve some of society's vices, such as under-age marriages, poor education, food insecurity, and so on," she says.

The vision of Girls Speak Out was informed by the realisation that "the majority of girls, even in the poor Zimbabwean households, which we studied, own smart phones and 30% of the phones functions proficiently. This already places a digital mobile tool in their hands, although in a limited way, at this point."

In 2017, the community and work being done by Girls Speak Out started to blossom. "From a seed of just 25 girls in our pioneer class we reached another 160 girls through the #Jumpstart Master classes, when we were invited to tour six cities in Zimbabwe to teach digital skills."

She smiles with happiness. "In 2018 we have a new set of 30 girls coming from Mufakose, Mabvuku and Dzivarasekwa."

WhatsApp classrooms

Their most fascinating adventure so far has been the "WhatsApp classrooms" initative. "We recruited the first batch of 170 young women for this in 2018. Mobile phone lessons involve how to launch transformative projects like manufacturing sanitary wear as a tool to keep poor girls in school."

"The success of the platform can be seen when WhatsApp mentees grow into mentors. The enthusiasm for the WhatsApp class is huge - the women happily sacrifice their own mobile phones and data."

Of the 16 Women that started the #PC4W Community Training Program 14 of them graduated. Photo: Girls Speak Out/Facebook

Feeling the impact of Girls Speak Out

The Girls Speak Out tech movement is producing girl champions and providing direct employment results, Marindire says proudly.

"Our girls from the 2017 coding class are now online content creators for publications in Zimbabwe focusing on community development. In Victoria Falls, some of the girls we trained under Jumpstart ZW co-founded #LetsTalkVF. This is a platform that engages and connects community members and public officials in the town on issues like education, the distribution of public funds, and more."

Some of the beneficiaries have made their mark in a country where jobs are difficult to obtain. "One of our graduates is now a news producer at a local video-production house, while another was snapped up by Plan International's media department. Another of our graduates now handles communications at a mining company, while our finest now works in Zimbabwean parliament's news section."

Surviving without support

Even without any external sources of finance, Girls Speak Out persists, driven by the will of its participants.

"We do not have a sponsor that gives us money," says Marindire bluntly. "We have been using our personal funds to cover costs and to engage skilled coders and advocates."

Non-profit technology hubs that are springing up around Harare have been of help, however. "They donate physical space and computers every Saturday so that we can meet there and train the girls."

Girls Speak Out structure their offering to allow for the relatively well-off to subsidise the numerous poor participants. "In 2018 we opened our classes to girls from wealthy suburban schools who are interested in the programme. We run an eight-week intensive leadership Power Class for Women and charge them a small fee. The cash buys equipment and bus fares for poorer girls in our free programme."

Deservedly, Girls Speak Out won the US$ 2000 Shoko Festival UnHub Conference's Women Rising Award. This is Zimbabwe´s premier honour to any movement that advocates for women's rights using mobile technologies.

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