Girl Coders Fight Sexual Harassment

To date, some 400 girls have participated in basic coding activities through the annual “Girls in Technology” workshop hosted by USAID’s Basic Education Program in Kosovo. / USAID Basic Education Program/FHI 360

At the USAID mission in Kosovo, we are always looking for ways to engage more women and girls in information and communication technology (ICT), a growing sector in Kosovo where women are underrepresented.

For the past five years, ever since Oct. 11 was declared International Day of the Girl Child by the United Nations, we at the mission have celebrated girls by promoting their successes in the ICT sector. This year, the IPKO Foundation is continuing USAID’s legacy by pairing girls from five Kosovo municipalities with two ITC organizations: Bone Vet Makerspace and Girls Coding Kosova. The activities taught girls to design IT applications.

I learned how important it is to involve girls in coding when I met Blerta Thaqi, the founder of Girls Coding Kosova, when she was awarded a USAID grant a few years ago. She was just beginning university and was unused to being the focus of the event.

Blerta Thaçi, left, and Kosovare Sahatqija are two of the 30 members of the Girls Coding Kosova network that developed an app with support from the USAID EMPOWER Private Sector project. /USAID EMPOWER Private Sector/Cardno

Blerta is the first girl in the Kosovo’s IT sector to ever win a grant to work on a computer application. Since then, she established Girls Coding Kosova in February 2014. Earlier this year, Girls Coding Kosova teamed up with Open Data Kosovo and USAID to develop #EcShlirë (meaning “walk freely” in Albanian), a mobile application for reporting sexual harassment in real time.

Sexual harassment is a reality for many young women in Kosovo, even if they don’t call it by that name.

Kosovare Sahatqija only found out about the prevalence of sexual harassment when she joined the #EcShlirë project as one of 30 girl coders. “I’d never heard the words ‘sexual harassment’ before I applied to join the coding workshop,” she explains. “It was only in developing the categories for the app that I realized how many types of encounters I have on a daily basis that can be considered sexual harassment.”

Kosovare is not alone. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN), while 64 percent of women surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment in their lifetimes, less than half identified acts like touching, pinching, or pushing (43 percent) or being whistled at on the street (38 percent) as sexual harassment. Although it is difficult to find reliable statistics on sexual harassment globally, women in Kosovo experience similar rates of sexual harassment to others around the world, including the United States.

Launched in February 2016, #EcShlirë gives users the option to report sexual harassment anonymously to encourage reporting. So far, over 800 people have downloaded the app, and over 300 cases have been reported. /USAID EMPOWER Private Sector/Cardno

The free mobile app relies on crowdsourcing to discreetly report sexual harassment. These trends will then be shared with the authorities and advocacy groups. Since its launch in February 2016, #EcShlirë has been downloaded over 800 times and over 300 incidents of sexual harassment have been reported through the application. Another mark of success is that it has been downloaded and used outside of Kosovo, and will soon be translated into Spanish.

Blerta became involved with #EcShlirë to tackle more than just sexual harassment. “I started Girls Coding Kosova because I saw that my female classmates didn’t have the same access to opportunities for work experience as my male classmates. This project was extra special because it gave us the chance to grow professionally and help protect our peers.”

Information technology is a new sector for women in Kosovo. Through the EMPOWER Private Sector project, USAID recently ensured 243 new jobs for young women in this sector. /USAID EMPOWER Private Sector/Cardno

Blerta isn’t alone in her quest to get more girls involved in technology. The IPKO Foundation is also working with USAID to support projects to get girls interested in the sciences. According to Abetare Gojani, the foundation’s program director, “Women in Kosovo feel under-represented at all levels in the ICT sector and uncertain about their future careers. Therefore, we continue to invest in activities such as RobotiKS Camp, Design Challenge Exhibition, Junior Oscar because we believe that only together can we change this social paradigm, fight stereotyping, inspire, and create future role models of Women in ICT.”

It is a unique experience to work with organizations like the IPKO Foundation, Girls Code Kosova, Bone Vet Makerspace, and individuals like Blerta to recognize the importance of giving girls the tools to succeed. Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, I am proud to celebrate the progress Kosovo has made on making life safer, more enriching, and more equal for girls.

About the Author

Xheraldina Cernobregu is a senior communications specialist for USAID’s mission in Kosovo. Follow her @DinaCernobregu and keep up with the Kosovo mission @USAIDKosovo.

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