By Eun-Young Jeong
Education Officer, UNICEF Uganda
Previously, I posted a blog on the impact of DigiSchools in Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers in northern Uganda. In ECD centers, the introduction of the DigiSchool was followed by an increase in children’s attendance and class participation. In this post, I describe pilot findings from the Child-Friendly Space (CFS) sites where adolescents, especially adolescent girls, were identified as the key end-users.
16-year old Monica lives in a refugee settlement in Adjumani district near the South Sudanese border in northern Uganda. Earlier this year, she met with field workers in a Child-Friendly Space (CFS) center near her home to discuss ways in which more adolescent girls like herself can be involved in CFS activities. Back then, Monica said it would be good to have activities involving computers because this would allow girls to build computer skills and gain exposure to the digital world. When the UNICEF Uganda team collected findings from the DigiSchool pilot a few months later, we found out that she was right.
CFS centers are crucial entry points for UNICEF to support the well-being of children and young people in emergency contexts. In places like Nyumanzi, a refugee settlement in Adjumani district, CFSs provide vital spaces for children to play and interact with each other in a safe environment. For adolescent boys, CFSs are the best places for holding passionate football matches and many come almost daily to play.
Unfortunately, in contrast to their male peers, CFSs are not as accessible for adolescent girls like Monica. James Kamira, an Adjumani-based World Vision staff working on the pilot, said that before the DigiSchool came, it was rare to see more than 10 adolescent girls at a CFS on any given day.
There are many reasons for this. For starters, South Sudanese culture traditionally doesn’t encourage interaction between adolescent girls and their male peers. This makes CFSs a restricted zone for many girls. Social expectations to carry out household chores also keep adolescent girls away from participating in CFS activities.
Slow but steady changes
The introduction of the DigiSchool in CFS centers resulted in a slow, but steady, increase in adolescent girls’ attendance. In three of the four CFS pilot sites, there’s been an evident increase in adolescent girls’ attendance since the pilot began in June to late August, as shown in the graph below. The sudden decrease in numbers in all sites in early September can be attributed to an Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) that began that month, which prepares adolescents for enrolling in secondary school.
Although numbers fluctuate, World Vision field staff working in the pilot concur that the DigiSchool has provided a much needed attraction for adolescent girls to regularly attend CFSs. “The videos (in the DigiSchool’s U-Portal) are great hooks for starting dialogues on peacebuilding. Even a shy girl will feel motivated to contribute something,” a World Vision field staff commented.
A closer look at the numbers tells a more compelling story of the DigiSchool’s positive impact on adolescent girls. In Nyumanzi B site, where the weekly adolescent girls’ attendance show severe fluctuation, the high peaks in attendance correspond to weeks when World Vision held joint activities with a nearby church and introduced the DigiSchool.
World Vision staff noted that church leaders began encouraging adolescent girls to attend CFSs after the DigiSchool was introduced. This shift in the community’s perspective of girls attending CFSs was echoed in a recent community dialogue involving local CFS caretakers, church leaders, and the settlement commandant, who all agreed that the DigiSchool is a useful tool for adolescents and an appropriate means for engaging with adolescent girls in CFSs.
Still some way to go
More time and work is needed to determine whether the DigiSchool’s attraction can be sustained in the long-run. Partners like World Vision are continuing to work through the DigiSchool pilot to identify appropriate channels and modalities for engaging with adolescent girls.
For example, World Vision is testing out gender-combined and segregated DigiSchool sessions in different sites based on requests made by girls at the centers. Although adolescent girls’ participation is very low in the combined sessions, the staff didn’t persuade girls to have separated sessions in these sites unless it was requested. This is because the combined sessions provide adolescent girls’ with much needed exposure of speaking in public settings. The caretakers therefore encourage combined sessions when possible while being mindful of cultural differences.
At present, an average of 25 adolescent girls attend the DigiSchool sessions. While this is a significant achievement in itself, it’s hoped that with more time, the DigiSchool’s added-value on adolescent girls like Monica will extend beyond increased attendance and participation.