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Teaching Ugandan Girls to Code to Keep Them in School

One third of Ugandan school children won’t make it to the end of their primary education, but that could change, thanks to a women’s technology organization and a British NGO whose coding lessons encourage them to stay in school and give them crucial skills for the future.

Written by Grainne Harrington Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In Uganda, many girls don't have access to computers at home, but coding clubs allow them to learn programming, and build confidence. Theirworld

KAMPALA, Uganda – The quiet of the computer lab is punctuated by the occasional giggle and squeal, as girls from KCC Primary Kamoja unwrap circuit boards, speakers and keyboards and plug them together with brightly coloured cables.

Less than a year ago, most of these girls had never used a computer. Now, with a simple instruction book and guidance from teacher Elizabeth Ahabwe, it takes them about half an hour to build a computer from scratch, connect it to a monitor and begin programming to create a simple game.

Following instructions on the screen read out by their teacher, seven-year-old Rita and nine-year-old Rachel punch commands into a bright-orange keyboard to personalize the Make Snake game, deciding how many lives they will give players and how the game will look, and when they lose their way they simply keep pressing the keys to see what happens. Neither of them has access to a computer at home or in school.

The class is an initiative of Women in Technology Uganda (WITU) in partnership with Theirworld, a British NGO whose Code Clubs project provides a space for vulnerable girls from low-income areas to develop essential skills through computer classes. The equipment is donated by Kano, which makes simplified DIY computer kits designed for children, and the curriculum comes from Codecademy, an online platform that offers free courses for children and adults.

Theirworld piloted the clubs in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria in 2016. In Uganda, 120 girls have enrolled in the clubs, out of a total of 353 girls in the program across Africa. The organization works with local partners to identify the most vulnerable girls and support them to pursue their education while developing skills that can translate to the modern job market.

“It’s just as much about developing their confidence and their creativity,” says Jessica Bryant, Theirworld’s media manager. “We’re giving them much more than just coding skills. We are empowering them with the way they use their minds, and even overcoming that barrier of learning something new. That’s something you will take with you for your whole life.”

Students are given set of instructions to get them started. (Grainne Harrington)

The girls in the program start coding early, from the age of five. Ordinarily, most of them wouldn’t be expected to make it to secondary school. Despite Uganda’s policy of universal, free primary education, Ministry of Education statistics show that less than one-third of all the country’s students reached their final year of primary school in 2014.

Education is a particular problem for girls. The hidden costs of schooling, such as uniforms, lunches, books and other supplies, force poor families to make difficult choices, and often the girls lose out. It’s an issue that has been highlighted recently by the case of activist Stella Nyanzi, who was arrested and now faces court for insulting the president as she campaigned to keep girls in school.

“At least in the rural areas, there’s a tendency of thinking that even if a girl studies, she’s just going to get married off and become someone’s wife or a mother and stay home,” Ahabwe, the teacher and WITU program manager, says. “So most parents don’t invest in the girls … Someone is going to take them anyway, so they concentrate more on the boys.”

Studies show that the social and economic effects of female dropout rates are enormous. UNESCO has found that a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five, and the World Bank estimates that each year of primary school increases girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent – for each year of secondary education, that figure jumps to 15 to 25 percent per year.

In March this year, Theirworld launched the #ReWritingTheCode campaign to try to overcome the discrimination that keeps girls out of school and limits their achievements. Central to this is access to education.

But in a country where so few children have access to computers, how can coding help? “Coding helps introduce logic and deep thinking in a way that applies even in other classes,” Barbari Birungi Mutabazi, WITU’s founder and director, says. “If a girl can think logically, it will help her in mathematics, in science, even in history and many other things. And then it also brings that confidence – ‘Oh, it’s actually considered a boy’s thing but I can do it.’ And then it builds her confidence in even other things.”

Birungi has big ambitions for the project. She hopes to roll out code clubs to all of Uganda’s state schools over the next decade.

For now, small changes are already visible. Rosemary, a secondary student, says she was afraid to enter the computer lab the first time. After completing the TheirWorld course, she was already confident with a keyboard and a mouse, and can create a simple game. Now, she says, “When I come here, I see these computers, it makes me happy … my mom even liked it. She told me, ‘Go ahead, and go on studying.’”

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