Jessica Posner Odede is the CEO of Girl Effect, a non-profit organisation that helps girls connect to technology. Her direction of travel changed forever while studying in Nairobi, Kenya. She talks to Gigalife about how tech can be just as life-changing for girls in emerging markets.
When Jessica Posner Odede arrived in Kenya, she could never have imagined the outsized importance the country would assume in her life.
But during that semester abroad, the Colorado-born college student fell in love with Kennedy Odede, a local community organizer who was leading efforts to transform the Nairobi slum of Kibera.
In the 12 years since they first met, the pair went on to co-found Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a grassroots non-profit that won the $2 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian prize in 2018.
Along the way, they wrote a best-selling NYT book, Find Me Unafraid, married, and had a son.
“The girls that we want to empower at Girl Effect aren’t distant for me – they’re my sister-in-law, my friends, the community that I’ve been part of,” explains Ms Posner from her home in Nairobi.
Such a deeply personal understanding of a place like Kibera has proved an asset in her new role as chief executive officer (CEO) at Girl Effect, an international non-profit that uses media and mobile tech to connect girls with services and information.
Here, she explains the power of technology to generate behavioral shifts, and the reason why better listening leads to more meaningful change.
“The girls that we want to empower at Girl Effect aren’t distant for me – they’re my sister-in-law, my friends, the community that I’ve been part of.”
What lessons have you learned along the way that you are now bringing to your work at Girl Effect?
First is that you can start small and have incredible impact. And second is the importance of community-led knowledge solutions.
Girls know what their challenges are and how to solve them – part of what we need to do is listen better.
What I love most about Girl Effect is that it’s driven by girls, for girls. We start from a girl’s perspective and then use that unique and in-depth understanding of her needs to create change that’s relevant to her world.
As CEO at Girl Effect, you use technology as a resource through which to empower girls. Can you tell me more about this tech-based approach to driving social change?
There’s an incredible opportunity in front of us because this is the first generation that is truly connected online.
Through the power of technology, girls can be heard, their voices and opinions can be counted in a way that wasn’t possible before, and they can access information that empowers them to make choices in their lives.
At Girl Effect, we’re using our insights about girls – coupled with an understanding of behavior change science – to empower them on media and technology platforms to make positive choices about their health, their education, and their finances so that they can reach their potential.
Jessica Posner Odede at work in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. Picture credit: Jessica Posner Odede
Do you have an example of such an insight?
Adolescent girls are one of the only demographics where new infection rates of HIV are going up, not down, globally.
For this generation, who have grown up seeing their predecessors living – and surviving – on antiretroviral therapy, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer a death sentence.
For many, this means it’s much riskier to tell her boyfriend to use a condom, because she might lose him, then it would be to potentially contract HIV. We’re interested in how we can use an insight like that to help a girl navigate negotiations with her boyfriend about condoms.
Even more so, we’re interested in thinking about why she would do that [in the first place]. She needs to believe and invest in her future and, if you can take her on that journey, then you can bring in that insight.
Part of Girl Effect’s strategy is to create a “new normal” for girls. How does technology help to generate behavioral and social change?
Technology is not an end in itself, but it’s a means to connect girls to services that exist around them.
For example, a girl might live next door to a health clinic but never visit it because she’s afraid of being judged for how it will look if she explores matters to do with her sexual health.
Technology can put the power in the hands of the girl to access information and connect her directly with these services. If one girl starts doing this, then three girls, then thousands, the expectation of what is normal also shifts over time.
The gender gap when it comes to mobile access has a knock-on effect as it means girls are also less likely to find jobs and develop tech literacy. What are some of the obstacles?
We’ve done some really interesting research with the Vodafone Foundation to understand what the barriers are for girls.
Not surprisingly, we’re seeing that girls are accessing phones at much lower rates than boys – in global studies, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone.
And in places like India or Bangladesh, girls who use a phone face negative judgment from community members who see them as potentially being over-exposed or a “bad girl.” But I think that it’s changing, especially as phone ownership becomes much more universal.
We’ve also learned that girls are ingenious in the ways that they gain access to phones.
Even if they don’t have one, they’re borrowing a SIM card or they’re sneaking on to their brother or father’s phone. I think it’s important that, even as we talk about the gender gap, we also acknowledge the resilience and resourcefulness of girls.
It’s clear that technology can open up opportunities for girls. But are there dangers to it, too?
Parents have some very legitimate concerns about what happens when their daughter goes online.
Often, when a girl does come online without that literacy she is incredibly vulnerable to trafficking and to misinformation.
We’re in the middle of a mobile phone revolution: in the last three years, the number of girls who accessed a mobile phone doubled and, in the next three years, it’s going to double again. The landscape is shifting really quickly, but it is a frontier where girls get left behind both in terms of access and in terms of spaces online that are created for them.
Part of what Girl Effect seeks to do is create safe spaces online that are ready-made for girls.
What are your hopes as the relationship between technology and social change evolves?
It’s my hope that technology can be harnessed to do good and expedite change. When Girl Effect started, there was no way to reach every girl because you’d literally have to go girl by girl, radio station by radio station.
But with the power of Whatsapp or Facebook, as well as phone access exploding, there might be a day when we can reach so many more girls than was possible when we began.
The trend of increased access is only going to continue to go up, but the challenge is how girls are accessing phones.
And when they do, it’s about how we can connect that access to enable them to make more positive and empowered choices about their health, their education, and their economic future.
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