“I have always enjoyed studying computer and human physiology since childhood, that’s why I jumped at the opportunity of developing a scientific application with KPITB’s support. This app has even helped my younger brother understand different body organs and their functions in a fun way. The KPITB’s ‘early age programming’ program has supported many girls from public schools, who would otherwise have never received this chance of realizing their dream of developing apps.”
Such compelling words came from Hafsa, a 13-year-old female student of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) public school as she addressed about one thousand young men and women at this year’s Digital Youth Summit (DYS) in Peshawar.
Girls like Hafsa are becoming the face of DYS, an annual event that brings the spotlight on young talent and their digital innovations.
I heard similar passionate accounts during my two-day interaction with KP youth as they shared candidly how they had transformed challenges into opportunities through hard work and perseverance.
DYS has brought together the next generation of digital entrepreneurs since 2014 to educate and inspire youth in a conflict-affected region where 50 percent of people are age 30 or under.
Such forums also provide a space for youth to voice their aspirations and claim for greater and more meaningful socio-economic inclusion.
And while Hafsa’s impassionate story of progress resonated with everyone in the room, it stood as a stark reminder that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve an equal digital future for both men and women.
Indeed, statistics about women’s employment in KP and FATA are alarming as only 14% of women in KP and 8.6% of women in FATA work for pay.
Fittingly, DYS discussed different gender issues and offered solutions to boost female digital entrepreneurship.
I particularly liked a lively session by Aurelie Salvaire, the founder of Shiftbalance on masculinities and their impact on people’s lives. She urged the (mostly male) audience to think beyond normative notions of masculinity and support their female relatives and friends to contribute equally to the technology and digital jobs debate.
I felt that open discussions like these, if more regular, could help change beliefs and practices about women’s economic participation and their access to public spaces—both domains generally dominated by men in Pakistan.
Other exciting sessions included young women entrepreneurs who shared innovative solutions to help more women succeed in a socially conservative environment.
For example, the Women’s Digital League, a social enterprise founded by a woman entrepreneur, enables several female entrepreneurs to earn a living by working from home and thus bypassing women’s restricted mobility in KP.
In a panel discussion, Annie Gul from Codematics highlighted the need to improve access to information on networks and markets to help women entrepreneurs excel in the digital space.
Some young women that I talked to share their desire to start their own businesses to not only to become independent but also provide greater economic options to people in KP.
Looking ahead, and with 64 percent of Pakistanis under 29 years old, development partners and the government must invest more in open engagement platforms such as DYS.
A first start would be to bring together young innovators (both women and men) from KP and other provinces to exchange ideas and facilitate a strategic dialogue on digital economy as well as social and gender inclusion.
This, in turn, could create a momentum for all provinces to develop and implement youth policies and strategies to promote an inclusive growth agenda in the country.