Breaking Barriers: A Conversation On How Tech Is Empowering Girls In Rwanda

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Camp TechKobwa, a program that supports the education of Rwandan  secondary school girls in the field of information technology, is a newly-founded institution that achieved its goal of female inclusion through a comfortable and supportive setting. If focuses on familiarizing the girls with computers, and through that platform, getting them involved in communications, entrepreneurialism, and responsible citizenship. The kobwa (ko-buh-gah) in TechKobwa means “girl” in Rwanda's native language, and as its name suggests, the main idea is to tie these two concepts together in a way that empowers women and enriches the schools and communities they return to.

Recently, I interviewed 3rd year Peace Corps Volunteer Elisabeth Turner, who works in Rwanda and directs the camps, and consults for the Rwandan Education Board. TechKobwa has a strong network of partnerships, with the Peace Corps, ICT Rwanda, and kLab. We discussed what TechKobwa means for Rwandan girls, and how things have changed since its inception.


What is TechKobwa?

The goal of it is to try and help boost Rwanda’s aim of becoming a technology-driven economy and… coupled with that, to increase girls’ access to education and the science and technology fields. Around the world, women are underrepresented in science and technology careers. So, the goal of the program is to work with [secondary-age] female students and show them that not only can science and technology be fun, but it’s also possible for them to achieve… and to think about those as subjects [of] study, and possibly future careers.

Regarding TechKobwa, how did you get involved?

Lyla Fujiwara was the volunteer who first came up with the idea, and she came to In-Service Training (IST)– my IST, and asked if there were volunteers who were interested. I was the Communications liaison the first year of the program. So I was working closely with Lyla, [former Peace Corp volunteer] Shawn Grund, and a few others to design the first program in 2013. …Lyla and Shawn were here specifically as ICT (Information and communication technology) volunteers. They were some of the last… [so] they were able to see that there was a big gap in ICT education in the country. They decided that if Peace Corps Volunteers do GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BE (Boys Excelling) camps, why not do a camp around technology?

Lyla finished her service that [same] year, so she passed it on to me and I became the director.

As a director what do you involve yourself with mainly: the oversight of the curriculum? How many people work on your team?

In the last two years, we’ve used a limited Peace Corps volunteer cohort. It’s really only been four volunteers each year. This year, I was really taking the lead. …Partners at MSU, IBM, and I work closely with on the curriculum. So, they provide me with a lot of expertise on designing a curriculum that is appropriate to the age level, and engaging. We also have some local partners here in Rwanda that gave consulting and advice on the curriculum; they were also available on the ground to be role-models, translators, and teachers.

Those were Peace Corps volunteers, then, or Rwandan teachers?

We work with some Rwandan organizations. …Creation Hill, Akilah Institute for Women, and Girls in ICT: which is a conglomeration of Rwandan women who work in ICT fields. They’ve been a big supporter of the camp over the past three years. Some of them actually helped us design the curriculum in the first year. In the past two years they’ve mostly served as role models and mentors. We do a career panel, so members of their organization come out each year to speak about possible futures in ICT.

The camp has been running for three years now, then?

Yes, it’s been in operation for three years.

How many students typically take part in the camps?

We increased from the first year. So, right now we have about 60 students. We invite ten schools from around the country and they each send a delegation of six girls, and one teacher.

For how long are these delegations at the camp?

The teachers come early. The teachers are there for about eleven days, because we do an in-depth training with the teachers in order to increase their methodology so that they can have a bigger impact in the classroom when they return to school. The students are on the ground for seven days. …At this point we’ve done one program each year. We hope to expand that in the future.

 What kinds of things do they teach throughout the seven-day camp?

It’s all aimed [at being] educational. We start with basic computer skills. One of the primary focuses of Techkobwa is to provide opportunities to rural schools, and there’s a lot of programs available to students in Kigali or in the major urban areas. But, usually the schools where Peace Corps volunteers are located have very limited resources and opportunities. So, we get schools and students that have never touched a computer before. We teach them how to use a mouse; we teach them how to type… then we use a variety of software to teach them more advanced skills, [including an] introduction to programming. They learn how to get onto and use the Internet. We create e-mail addresses for them. They learn about how to stay safe and secure while using the internet. We do lessons in photography.

One of the main things we do to bring everything together is a weeklong research project. So, the girls are in groups of three. They then identify a community problem… They then go on the internet to do research to see what has been done to try and solve the problem or to think of new ideas for how they could solve the problem. At the end of the week they prepare a written and an oral presentation about their ideas on how Rwanda can develop in that particular area. It brings together a lot of the different skills that they are learning… and ultimately the idea is that it is not enough to have a skill. You need to be able to market it. You need to be able to apply it to your life. So, the research project… prepares them… to write a paper or give a presentation that could get them into university.

When the girls leave the camp is there any form of follow-up in the form of training certificates or plans for implementation?

One of the reasons we emphasize a teacher coming with the students is that there’s some supervision and continuation when the girls go back to school. We require every school that’s interested to commit to sending one of their qualified ICT teachers to the program. When the students and the teacher leave at the end of the camp, we give every teacher a manual with all of the materials and lessons; we give them a flash drive with all of the various resources and software, such as typing software, used to teach the students. With the aim that the teachers and the students continue the learning. One thing we aim for and encourage is preparing them for starting an ICT or digital media club on their campus. So that they can use the resources we’ve given them to expand their own learning and practice and also to teach other students at their school.

So, given these expectations have there been any profound successes or outright failures regarding camp goals? What methodologies have worked exceptionally well for TechKobwa?

I think one thing that we’ve seen with the research project is that it was a really good introduction to the program in the second year. …So I would say that that’s a big success that we added later. Also, expanding the training of the teachers. In the first year, in 2013, we didn’t rely on the teachers very much. They came for maybe only two days and it was sort of a typical TOT (Training of Teachers) where you rush through the schedule and everybody helps more with administration. We now place a lot more responsibility on the teachers… I do follow-up with the teachers… to make sure that they are actually using the materials we’ve given or if there are any other questions or connections that need to be made.

This year, we had the opportunity to have independent monitoring and evaluation (IME)… our initial numbers from this year are really promising… there were dramatic improvements. As an example, on one question about parallel currents, 0% of the girls got it right before camp, and 100% of them got it right by the end. …I think one of my favorite results of the Monitoring and Evaluation this year is that there was a question that asked them to draw a scientist. Our evaluator determined that the percentage of those drawings that were male versus female. Before camp, they were predominantly male and after camp they were predominantly female. For me, I think that is a simple thing, but it is a great indicator of changing the girls’ attitudes and minds. That they believe that they can see themselves in that type of career. I think that that is one of the greatest things we can achieve.

The camp then, I imagine, has been well-received locally for empowering girls and enabling teachers to impart more knowledge through proper curriculum. Has the government at all been involved or promoting this camp or has it been independently funded?

We’ve had the support of the Ministry of Youth and ICT since the very beginning. Their support has been financial, for transportation. This year, I tried to get them involved in the conversation sooner because we’re moving toward trying to find a sustainable model in Rwanda, and to possibly expand to other countries. …So, these are conversations that we’re still having. I recently took one of our alumni to represent the camp at an event at Parliament. It was Rwanda’s launch of the HeforShe program. So, the TechKobwa camp represented the Ministry of Youth and ICT in terms of their work in gender and development.

What do you think the future holds for TechKobwa? Where do you think it will be headed?

We plan on doing two camps next year in Rwanda, instead of just the one. This would give us a chance to fine-tune the curriculum, do the camp, fine-tune it again, do the second camp, and then fine-tune it again. So, that ideally by the end of 2016, we’ll have a solid package that can be expanded to other countries. Peace Corps has expressed interest in potentially marketing this to other Peace Corps countries and our partners, Michigan State University and IBM, also are interested in expanding.

What do you think is the most prominent takeaway from the TechKobwa camps?

…We receive girls who when they arrive barely speak above a whisper. They’re used to being in classrooms where they hardly ever raise their hands. If their school has computers, it’s usually the male students who are sitting and typing things in class. But at the end of the week, they’ve had maybe more time on a computer than they might have ever had in their whole life. They have confidence. They have smiles on their face. They’re able to talk louder than when they came. I think we are teaching, we are raising confidence and showing the girls they have the ability. It’s not that we’re [just] teaching them new knowledge or new skills, but something that’s already within them. If they can have the confidence to speak up and not let the norms of society silence them, they are capable of so much. They are certainly capable, as our research projects shows, of finding wonderful and creative solutions to the challenges in their communities.

Have there been any drawbacks or criticisms that have limited the TechKobwa model from instilling these values in the girls during the camp? Have there been any issues regarding its implementation?

The main issue is infrastructure. Both at the camp and after the camp. At the camp, we’ve struggled to find a location that could meet our very high demands of trying to get sixty girls on the internet all at the same time. It is very hard anywhere in Rwanda.

The big challenge after that is if we send these girls and their teacher back to their school and their school doesn’t have any computers, how do they continue? What good are a lot of the resources we give them if they don’t have any machines to put the software on? The reality right now is that we don’t have the ability to meet that need. That is something that maybe through partnerships with the government [we could] look at in the future. …One of the things we’ve tried to do to meet that challenge is that a large part of our curriculum comes from a program called CS Unplugged, or Computer Science Unplugged. Their lessons… teach computer science without computers …no matter what their infrastructure or electricity [is like].

Where can people go to find out more or get involved?

On our website. …We keep that updated pretty regularly with any changes or additions.

[We are certainly looking] for potential partners, for funding, [and donors].


Thank you very much to TechKobwa with speaking to #WomenInFront about this amazing program!

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This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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