Three outstanding organizations were announced as winners of the EQUALS in Tech Awards at a ceremony at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to recognize their efforts to promote the empowerment of women and girls through information and communication technology (ICT).
The awards are delivered by the EQUALS Global Partnership, a network of more than 50 partner companies and organizations working together to bridge the digital gender divide, and co-founded by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UN Women, the International Trade Centre, The GSM Association and the United Nations University.
The winners were selected from a pool of 15 finalists for their performance in three categories— access, skills, and leadership.
“With one woman, one computer, and one dream at a time, we can change the world together.” –Roya Mahboob
“It is such an inspiring and moving moment when we see, in flesh and blood, how empowerment works – and how women and girls can step out there and carve their own territory in a masculinized world,” said Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri, expressing the palpable emotion in the room. “The EQUALS award symbolizes our determination to change the world.”
In the Access Category, the winner was Lebanese Alternative Learning, which has developed Tabshoura in a Box. This platform works independently of the Internet and electricity, a key feature in low-resource environments, and provides a hotspot where students can connect computers and access digital learning resources. The platform is expected to spread to at least 15 schools and learning centres within the next year. The award was received by Dr Nayla Zreik Fahed.
In the Skills Category, the winner was Digital Citizen Fund of the United States and Afghanistan, which over the past four years has built 13 information technology and media centres that provided Internet access to 55,000 people and training to more than 10,000 women in digital literacy, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. More than 100 women have gone on to launch their own startups in different industries. The award was received by Ms Roya Mahboob, who said, “With one woman, one computer, and one dream at a time, we can change the world together.”
In the Leadership Category, the winner was Sula Batsu Cooperativa of Costa Rica, which has created women-led rural “technological poles” that empower women to launch their own digital businesses. The programme has impacted 1,500 rural young women, 700 teenage girls, and 200 mothers of rural girls. Ms Kemly Camacho said, “By receiving this award, I honour the efforts of 600 young women from rural Central America (…) who demonstrate in multiple ways that they too can lead the IT industry. They prove every day that another, more inclusive, more sustainable digital economy is possible in Central America”.
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, ITU Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership, evoked the significance of the problem. “We must remind ourselves why the EQUALS initiative is so important. It is shocking to note that the digital gender gap is growing. In Africa, the proportion of women using the internet is 25% lower than the proportion of men. Globally, only 4% of senior management roles in tech companies are held by women (…). This is the challenge that the EQUALS partnership is addressing.”
At the EQUALS Panel discussion held the next day, Dr Nayla Zreik Fahed explained what sparked her idea to start the Girls Can Count project, using resources from the Tabshoura in a Box initiative.
She was at a school in Lebanon, and one of the girl pupils told her: “They won’t let me take the computer courses. They take me to hair dressing. I don’t want to be in hair dressing. I want to be a computer engineer.” So Dr Nayla Zreik Fahed started the NGO in 2014 focusing on equitable access to quality education, mainly through digital education. The NGO also aims to reinforce Science, Technology, Arts and Mathematics education for girls.
Ms Kemly Camacho, who teaches computer science at University in Costa Rica, explained that she started the project in 2011 after she had some conversations with young women who were studying computer science.
“They told us about all of the difficulties they had to open a space in an industry which has only 20% or less of women,” said Ms Camacho. “The project is for Central America, and aims at creating more opportunities for women to be integrated in the IT industry. To achieve this, we create different networks which support each other, and integrate other women interested in developing IT and creating technology.”
Also, many of the young women come from rural areas and go back home to use the technology to develop these areas. Ms Camacho added: “They develop their own enterprises and their own software. And we began to develop a local digital economy very connected with the needs of the right populations”.
Ms Roya Mahboob, who started Digital Citizen Fund, explained: “An Internet cafe opened and only my brothers and cousin could go there. But I was insistent to go there and I refused to give up. One day I walked in and, for the first time, I used the Internet. And that day, everything for me changed. I found out more about what was around me. And I made technology the center of my career.” She then started her business in 2010 with her younger sister. It was the first technology company in Afghanistan with a female CEO. “Then I found that there are many girls just like me, curious but not given a way to explore the world. We wanted to change everything for them so that’s why we started the fund.”
This year’s awards were supported by the Internet Society, the Government of Switzerland and Facebook. Overall, there were 293 submissions from 72 countries. A winner was then selected in each of the three categories by an expert panel of EQUALS partners and previous winners.