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Cities and ICTs: Opportunities and dangers for adolescent girls

Jan 06, 2011

Plan International’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ report looks at lives of adolescent girls in two of the fastest growing arenas in the world today – cities and new communication technologies. In both, girls should have the right to protection, but this report will show that this right is often violated.

Because I am a Girl: State of the World’s Girls 2010

Cities have the potential to make countries rich, and for many, cities are a symbol of hope for a better life; but in reality, city life can mean exclusion and increased hardship.

This is true for the urban poor, particularly girls and young women. The opportunities that present themselves are real, but so are the risks and multiple deprivations associated with the urban divide. Girls with nowhere to live, no family support and no job can end up on the street, in unsafe relationships and unable, through poverty, to take advantage of the education and health facilities that do exist.

The internet and other new communications technologies blur the line between public and private, and abuse online can turn into real life encounters that put girls at risk.

The dangers for girls in both cities and online are rapidly expanding and yet are little regulated or researched. As a result, they pose massive new threats to girls’ safety. These are particularly serious at adolescence, when girls are becoming sexual beings but have not yet developed the skills or the knowledge to protect themselves from harm. It is precisely at this time in their lives that they need the most support. Yet this is also when entrenched gender discrimination – that treats girls as less equal and less important than boys –exposes them to risk.

Adolescent girls are neglected by city planners who could make cities safe for them, let down by the failure to enact or implement legislation that would support and protect them, and exposed by a lack of regulation and enforcement of protection online. Girls are also abused by the very people and institutions that are meant to keep them safe, such as the police.

And yet cities and ICTs also have the potential to offer girls more opportunities than ever before. Increasing numbers of girls are moving, with their families, to cities – where they are more likely to be educated, less likely to be married at an early age and more likely to participate in politics and leisure activities. In 59 countries there are now as many girls as boys going to school – that’s 20 countries more than in 1999.6 And millions of girls and young women now have access to mobile phones and global information systems, putting them in touch not only with their friends but with their peers in different countries.

For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. And the numbers are growing rapidly – each month, five million people are added to the cities of the developing world. We can estimate that by 2030approximately 1.5 billion girls will live in cities. This rapid urbanisation means that violence against girls in slums and on the streets is growing as well. Extreme poverty and homelessness push adolescent girls in particular into begging, transactional sex and other forms of exploitation in order to survive.

For girls, the new world of ICTs brings old and new, rich and poor, opportunity and danger, up against each other more dramatically, more immediately and perhaps more damagingly than in any other era. Access to new information technologies and the media has exposed young women to new ideas and ways of thinking that open up huge possibilities – but which their families might also perceive as dangerous. The internet creates new intimacies that seem safe, magnifying the power of the peer group and inviting in the stranger.

Adolescent girls need to be able to develop the skills to protect themselves and to distinguish opportunity from threat. Authorities and other ‘duty-bearers’ must make it their responsibility to make both cities and the internet safe and girl friendly.

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