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Resilience pathways: Using digital literacy for self-reliance among young women refugees in Kenya

By Shem Siteki | OMC 2024

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Globally, digital technologies occupy a central place for many forcibly displaced persons, who often experience adaptation and language difficulties when moving to host countries and cities. Recently, there has been a steady increase in the number of migrants, who own digital devices, and are able to access digital services such as mobile money transfers, online matchmaking, recruitment, advertisements, cloud storage, online mapping and e-learning, identity document issuance and renewal and healthcare requests. Other services (particularly advanced by humanitarian and private stakeholders) include: remote pre-registration, status checks on refugee status determination, identity document issuance and healthcare requests. 

For Kenya, its current technological advancements have brought about new opportunities and a progressively appealing channel for the creation of jobs for young urban women refugees residing in the country. The reduced price of handsets and internet access, coupled with the spread of mobile networks and digital tools, has fostered an environment where these young women refugees can access Information and Communication Technology (ICT). This has seen them share information and communication with both their loved ones and formal institutions, aside from offering employment and education. 

Despite their importance and usage, not everyone can access the ICTs, nor is everybody digitally literate. Such disparities in relation to ICTs can be understood through the lens of the digital divide. This concept refers to the gaps created in society based on access to and use of ICTs including internet connectivity, internet-enabled devices and digital literacy skills. Access to just one or two is not enough. Ideally, all three are essential for communities to form a strong and sustainable link to the digital world. This is critical since essential pillars of society such as education, workforce development and innovation migrate online.

A good example to highlight this digital divide concept is the Rohingya refugee crisis at the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. This crisis showed the extensive disparity in ICT access and usage amongst men and women, with the latter being regularly deprived. In most circumstances this disparity could result from poverty, illiteracy, including computer illiteracy, and language barriers. Additionally, socially constructed gender roles and relationships play a critical role in determining the capacity of women and men to participate on equal footing in the information age.  

In highly developed countries, the divide centred on access is shrinking. This is due to the general growth of internet access. For instance, across the European Union, household internet stands at around 85%. In the developing countries however, only 35% of the population can access the internet. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that 90 percent of adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 are offline, compared to 78 percent of teenage boys and young men of similar age group, who do not use the internet.

For many women in developing countries, inaccessibility to ICT can result in diminished voices in their communities, their government and at the global level. Similarly, it can reduce their free time and space, aside from being unfavourable to women who particularly face social isolation.

Scholars contend that the skills and usage divide is far more important compared to the gap in access. These skills can only be acquired through digital literacy. This refers to skills, abilities and attitudes that empower people and societies to survive, flourish and grow in an environment that is increasingly digital. A slightly divergent and practical meaning might describe it as narrowing the gap between educational provision and digital environment. 

Significantly, digital literacy and connectivity are shared challenges for refugees and their hosts. Furthermore, the situation is exacerbated with costly mobile/internet data and devices. These challenges are especially prevalent in camps where most of these refugees reside. As a way out, forced migrants progressively find themselves in urban areas

However, these refugees, mostly young men and women, face severe conditions when they arrive in cities, while having to compete for opportunities. For example, in Nairobi, these refugees find themselves living amongst 4.5 million people. Nearly 40% of this citizen population is unemployed; around 50% live below a dollar a day and about 60% of these residents live in slums. In such circumstances, young urban refugee women are especially susceptible to facing unique risks, including digital illiteracy.

Nevertheless, based on my recent research conducted in the city of Nairobi, a few of these young urban women refugees have been able to undergo digital literacy training – with a view of empowering themselves. Respondents from the study indicated that they had gained varied digital skill sets, including basic, intermediate, and advanced skill sets. Specifically, intermediate skills were the most gained skills. Basic skills were the second, while advanced skills were the least acquired skill set. 

A key challenge was the limited digital literacy training opportunities that exist for these young urban women refugees. It was evident that there are very few gender-responsive institutions that offer (sponsor) digital literacy training. Still, the few that exist are quite a distance from where most of these refugee students live. Thus, it was expensive for them in terms of transport. 

To address these challenges, there are two fundamental policy interventions that can be undertaken. First, there is a need to support gender-sensitive digital literacy training institutions – especially the ones that are refugee led. Second, it would be important for these institutions to introduce blended learning in their curriculum – where students can opt to undertake the training both in class and in their homes (spaces). 

In sum, exploring the opportunities and challenges linked to the subject of digital literacy and empowerment of young urban women refugees offers a chance to draw on lessons. This is in addition to improving policy instruments geared at ICT usage and access amongst migrants in general.

Shem Siteki is currently a PhD student at United States International University - Africa (USIU-A) in Nairobi, Kenya. His current research interests lie within the subject of Refugee Livelihoods in Urban Settings with a specialisation on Digital Skills and self-reliance among refugee youth.  


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