Computer science? This is boy stuff. 15-year-old Hesme believed when she switched schools in 10th grade. “I thought I was terrible at it,” she says. Her previous school in Durban on the coast of South Africa did not offer comprehensive science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) classes.
But when she moved to Curro Heritage House High School in Morningside, Durban, STEM classes were an integral part of the curriculum. She was nervous about it – but when her brother dared to take a computer science elective, she accepted the challenge of proving him wrong.
To her amazement, she loved it. “It became my passion,” she says, now in her senior year of high school. As the only girl in class, she felt intimidated at first, but blossomed in the end. And when the call came to try out an artificial intelligence (AI) hackathon for all girls, she immediately started writing the required letter of motivation to apply.
“I just sat in class and wrote, and all my passion came out,” she says. When she was selected to be on a five-girl team representing South Africa, she was thrilled.
Today, Hesme is developing her own AI-based app to help people like themselves – who are found to be on the autism spectrum – better deal with the world. She plans to get a higher AI certificate next year before studying computer science at the university.
And she was thrilled when her team won second place in the first all-girls edition of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Junior virtual AI hackathon, held in collaboration with the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization, on International Women’s Day (UNESCO) was held.
“The AI captured my heart this weekend,” says Hesme, whose team competed against 16 others from 11 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Business as usual does not give girls the same opportunities
The gender gap in education is severe. More than 130 million girls were denied education even before the COVID-19 success. And as schools closed around the world, UNESCO estimates that 11 million additional girls are at risk of never going back to school.
This could mean a big step backwards after years of slow but steady progress on the path to gender equality. In addition, young girls are at risk of teenage pregnancy, early and forced marriages, and gender-based violence. Even before COVID-19, the rate of change was not fast enough, according to Justine Sass, Head of Education for Inclusion and Gender Equality at UNESCO. UNESCO has partnered with Microsoft in the hackathon as part of the Gender Flagship of the UNESCO Global Education Coalition, which brings together more than 70 United Nations institutions, civil society, academia and the private sector to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on education and minimize gender equality.
UNESCO believes that restricting girls’ education will ultimately have an impact on the whole world. At a time when jobs increasingly require digital skills, girls’ education can boost local and regional economies and reduce poverty. But it doesn’t go fast enough.
“Last year was the 25thth Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, ”says Sass, referring to the UN Declaration on Ensuring Equality for Women Around the World. “If we continue like this, we won’t get every girl into elementary school by 2050.”
Yet two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women, she says.
“It’s been the same since 2000, so we’re not making any progress in this area,” says Sass.