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Surfing the Web without Being Swept Away

Megan Iacobini de Fazio

NEW YORK, Sep 22 2010 (IPS) - City life and access to information technologies can open up a whole new arena of possibilities for young girls: better education, access to healthcare, new skills and a plethora of new ideas.

Access to ICTs can enable women and girls to participate more fully in the life of their community and country. Credit: Matthew Bowden (

Access to ICTs can enable women and girls to participate more fully in the life of their community and country. Credit: Matthew Bowden (

At the same time, a report by the aid organisation Plan International released Wednesday finds that both urban living and easier access to the internet and communication services can present significant risks to adolescent girls.

The report, the fourth in the flagship series “Because I Am Girl” and entitled “Digital and urban frontiers: Girls in a changing landscape”, looks at the way urban life and access to communication and information technology (CITs) influences the lives of young girls.

Sharon Goulds, editor of the report, told IPS that “urban living and technology are two arenas of real growth and opportunity, but this also means that girls and young women could be at risk”.

Each month cities of the developing world grow by about five million people, swollen by immigrants from rural areas with aspirations to a better life for them and for their family back home. It is estimated that by 2030, 1.5 billion girls will live in urban areas.

Girls who move to cities are more likely to go to school – in developing countries, attendance can be up to 37 percent higher for girls between 15 and 19. Access to healthcare is also easier, resulting in a lower number of maternal deaths and better understanding of sexual and reproductive health.

However, these benefits are accompanied by significant risks: lack of housing, overpopulation and poor sanitation all lead to an increase in physical and sexual abuse against women.

Sexual harassment is of course not a phenomenon limited to developing countries. Crowded streets, markets and subways give men the perfect opportunity to harass young girls with impunity. In the Netherlands, 40 percent of women interviewed in an online survey said they did not feel safe while walking alone at night in their own city.

The worst dangers are faced by girls living in some of the world’s poorest slums or on the street. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says that out of the approximately 100 million children that inhabit the streets of cities all over the world, over 30 percent are girls.

Homeless adolescent girls are not surprisingly more vulnerable to being forced into sex work, begging or unpaid labour in order to escape homelessness and poverty.

“Ensuring that girls have access to the many benefits a city can offer is key,” Gould said. “In the surveys carried out for the report, better street lighting, safer public transport and more security personnel were top of their list of improvements.”

Greater access to information and communication technologies can be one of the advantages of living in a city. A good knowledge of ICTs is essential for most jobs, so good training for girls would definitely improve their chances of finding a job, lifting them out of poverty and empowering them.

Many women’s organisations also use ICT’s such as the internet, radio and TV to promote gender equality, highlight violence against women or educate women about sexual health.

As access to the internet and the media becomes more widely available and many times is a prerequisite for a good job, it is important that young boys and girls gain the expertise and knowledge to use them not only well, but also safely, the report stresses.

Adolescent girls are especially at risk of coming into contact with sex offenders online, of being “groomed” into personally meeting them and therefore of putting themselves into a position of significant danger.

The potential dangers of the cyber world are pushing some families to hold girls back when it comes to learning about the internet or providing them a mobile phone. And while this may protect them in part from sexual harassment, it is nevertheless preventing girls from taking full advantage of information technologies, gaining a full education and moving up in life, experts warn.

“One of the key things is to consult with girls and young women, not to over protect but to make them aware of the risks and of how to protect themselves from them,” Gould said.

Access to ICTs can enable women to participate more fully in the life of their community and country, to acquire new skills or to build a specific knowledge which may help to keep them safe, such as on HIV and AIDS.

“Both urban life and access to information technology should give girls greater opportunities – provided the risks are tackled – but the barriers of poverty, access and inbuilt attitudes to what is appropriate to girls and boys mean that it will take a great deal of investment on girls both inside and outside families for true equality to be reached,” Gould said.

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