UNESCO laureate empowers Sri Lankan women and girls to take their place in the emerging technology sector

A project supporting Sri Lankan girls and women to access, learn and succeed in emerging technologies has won the 2020 UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education.
The awarded project, NextGen Girls in Technology, is part of the Shilpa Sayura Foundation established in 2005 in Sri Lanka to give rural youth digital access to national education and to build technology skills.

Addressing the gender gap in interest and skills 

Too many girls are held back by discrimination, biases, social norms and expectations that influence the quality of education they receive and the subjects they study. While Sri Lanka has become a hub for technology and innovation, the number of girls studying technology and pursuing careers in this field is relatively low.

‘There is an education culture which teaches that information and communication technologies (ICT) are difficult. Parents and teachers have a strong influence over the choice of subjects where high grades are more easily attained such as health and agriculture,’ says Director of youth development of the Shilpa Sayura Foundation, Poornima Meegammana.

‘The mindset that we set out to change is one where girls are traditionally pushed towards careers in medicine while boys towards engineering,’ added lead educator, Niranjan Meegammana.

The combination of curricula that have not moved in time with technology and the fact that women often come to the subject late, means that girls have more catching up to do in university and face a large gap between their skills and the demands of the job market when they leave.

Blended learning and role models are key

‘Many schools in Sri Lanka already have computer labs but what they are missing are the learning resources and engagement’, says Niranjan.

The project uses blended learning, merging online classrooms and in-person workshops to teach everything from what is a computer to coding, IoT (the Internet of Things), machine learning and artificial intelligence. It also encourages shared learning and builds creative and critical thinking.

‘We noticed that although girls often start slow, once their confidence builds, they make very quick progress’, says Poornima. ‘What they often lack is a mentor or a role model to bounce ideas off.’ Poornima herself is a living example of the Foundation’s impact. Since age 12, she joined education programmes offered by the Foundation and is now leading work on youth development, including the awarded project, NextGen Girls in Technology.

To tackle the role model shortage and increase mentoring opportunities, the project encourages university students who participated in the project to return to their schools and mentor younger students.

Meet Rameela and Chathuni, tech girls in the making

NextGen has trained over 1,050 young women and more than 500 teachers on in-demand technology sector skills such as machine learning, cybersecurity and design, and cultivated internship and employment opportunities.

‘We have travelled by train and truck to reach girls and boys and often found they already had the infrastructure and the capacity for learning but didn’t have the training,’ said Poornima.

Rameela Azeez was orphaned by the Tsunami in 2004 and struggled through university on a scholarship. ‘After joining NextGen Girls, she progressed to become a programme leader and won a scholarship to China. She received mentoring and training to study machine learning and is now working at a top university as a research engineer,’ said Poornima.

Chathuni Thilakarathne was encouraged to study multimedia when she entered university,  even though her interest lay in information security. Through NextGen Girls, she received training on IoT and computer programming and was assigned a mentor in her field of interest. She has now changed her field of study and is learning about networking technology and information security.

Established in 2015 with generous funding from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education is granted annually to two laureates and consists of an award of US$50,000 to each laureate to help further their work in the area of girls’ and women’s education.

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