ICTs and Child Migration: A Technology Salon NYC Summary

By *Linda Raftree | March 06, 2014
  • Author: *Linda Raftree
  • Journal: http://lindaraftree.com/

Adapted from article originally posted in the Wait…What? blog November 20, 2012

This post summarizes discussions that surfaced around the Population Council’s upcoming Girls on the Move report, which looks at adolescent girls’ (ages 10-19) internal and regional migration in ‘developing’ countries, including opportunity and risk.

The Girls on the Move report (released in February 2013) synthesizes current evidence, incorporates results of specially commissioned research, illustrates experiences of migrant girls, provides examples of promising policies and programs, and offers concrete action-oriented recommendations.

1) How are migrant girls using ICTs?

While the report’s focus is not technology, the research team notes that there is some evidence showing that adolescent girls are using ICTs for:

  • Extending social networks. In China and Southeast Asia, migrant girls are building and accessing personal networks through mobiles and texting. This is especially pronounced among girls who work long hours in tedious jobs in factories, and who do not have much time with family and friends. Text messaging helps them maintain connections with existing social networks. It also gives them space for flirtation, which may not be something they can do in their former rural context because of cultural norms that look down on flirtatious behavior.
  • Finding new jobs. Both boys and girls use mobiles and text messaging for exchanging quick news about job openings. This suggests there could be an opening for program interventions that would connect to migrant children through texting, and that might supply information on community resources, for example, where to go in cases of threat or emergency—that might then propagate across migrant virtual networks.
  • Sending remittances. Based on research with adolescent girls and drawing from examples of adult migrants, it seems likely that a vast majority of migrant girls save money and send it to their families. Evidence on how girl migrants are using remittances is limited, but a survey conducted in Kenya found that 90% of adult migrants had sent money home to families in other parts of Kenya via mobile phone in the 30 days before the survey. There is more research needed on adolescent girls’ remittance patterns. Research is also lacking on adolescent girls’ access to and use of mobile phones and on whether mobile phones are owned or borrowed from another person who is the handset owner. Remittances, however, as one participant pointed out, are obviously only sent by mobile in countries with functioning mobile money systems.
  • Keeping in touch with family back home. In Western Kenya, migrant brides who are very isolated placed great importance on mobiles to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Facebook is very popular in some countries for keeping in touch with families and friends back home. In Johannesburg and Somalia, for example, one participant said “Facebook is huge.” Migrating adolescent girls and domestic working girls in Burkina Faso, however, do not have Internet access at all, via mobiles or otherwise.

2) Areas where ICTs could support work on child protection and migration

  • Child Protection Systems There is a general global move towards developing child protection systems that work for different kinds of vulnerable children. These efforts are important in the transit phase and right upon arrival as these phases are particularly risky for children who migrate. ICTs can play a role in managing information that is part of these systems. Ways to connect community child protection systems into district and national systems need more investigation.
  • Reporting abuse and getting help One example of ways that ICTs are supporting child protection in India and several other countries is Child Help Lines. ChildLine India received almost 23 million calls as of March 2012, with 62% of callers between the ages of 11 and 18. The helplines provide vulnerable groups of children and youth with referrals to local services, and in the best cases they are public-private partnerships that link with national and state governments. Of note is that boys call in more often than girls, and this raises questions about girls’ access to phones to actually make a call to obtain support. It also points to the need for differentiated strategies to reach both boys and girls.

3) Technology and exclusion

  • Social exclusion and access is a specific challenge due to the pronounced social exclusion of many migrant girls, particularly those who are married or working in socially isolated jobs such as child domestic workers. Girls in these situations may not have any access to technology at all, including to mobile phones.  Girls and women especially tend to have less access than men; they are often not the owners of devices. There is a research gap here, as no one actually knows how many migrating adolescent girls access mobiles and how many can borrow a phone for use. It is not clear if girls have their own phones, or if they are using an employer’s or a friend’s phone or a public call box. This would be a key factor in terms of working with adolescent girls and understanding risk and designing programs.
  • Technology should build on – not be seen as a replacement for – social networks. Girls access to social capital is a huge underlying topic. There is normally a rupture in social networks when girls move. They become socially isolated and this puts them at great risk. Domestic girl workers leave home and become more vulnerable to exploitation —  they have no friends or family around them, and they may not be able to access communication technologies. For this reason it is critical to understand that technology cannot replace social networks. A social network is needed first, and then ICTs can allow girls to remain in touch with those in their network. It is very important to think about understanding and/or building social networks before pushing the idea of technology or incorporating technologies.

4) ICTs and potential risk to child migrants

  • SMS, anonymity and privacy. According to a study one participant was involved in, some children and youth report feeling that they can speak up more freely by SMS since they can text privately even in close quarters. Others noted that some organizations are incorporating online counseling services for similar reasons. A study in Nigeria is ongoing regarding this same topic, and in Southeast Asia it has been shown that girls often use text messages to flirt using an alternate identity.
  • Retaliation. Concerns were raised regarding the possibility for retaliation if a child reports abuse or uses a mobile for flirting and the phone is confiscated.  Practices of self-protection and message deleting are not very well implemented in most cases. A participant noted that some of the low-end phones in Tanzania and Kenya periodically delete outgoing messages and only keep 15 messages on the phone at a time. This can help somewhat, though it is not a feature that is particularly aimed at protection and privacy, rather, it is more a function of low memory space. Safer Mobile is one initiative that looks at risk and privacy; however, like most efforts looking at risk, it is focused on political conflict and human rights situations, not at privacy and protection for child migrants or other types of abuse reporting that children may be involved in.

5) Research gaps and challenges

  • Migration contexts. It was emphasized that migration during an emergency situation is very different from a voluntary migration, or seasonal migration. Work is being done around communication with disaster or emergency affected populations via the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, but this theme does not seem to be one of widespread discussion among US-based NGOs and humanitarian organizations.
  • Migrants are not necessarily disadvantaged however a bias exists in that researchers tend to look for disadvantage or those who are disadvantaged. They often ask questions that are biased towards showing that migrants are disadvantaged, but this is not always the case. Sometimes migrating children are the most advantaged. In some contexts migrating requires family support and funds to migrate, and those with the least amount of resources may not be able to move. In some cases migrant children have a huge, strong family structure. In others, children are escaping early marriage, their parents’ passing away or other difficult situations.
  • Integrated information and data crossing. One issue with research around migrants is that most looks solely at migrants and does not cross migration with other information. Many girls migrate with the idea that they will be able to get an education, for example, but there is not a lot of information on whether migrating girls have more or less access to education. The literature tends to focus on girls in the worst situations. In addition, although there are 4 times as many internal migrants as there are international migrants, focus tends to be on international migration.

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*Author is an ICT specialist currently working with Plan International USA and serving as a special advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office. She convenes Technology Salons in New York City and is a co-founder of Kurante, a start-up consulting firm.  She recently completed a landscape review on Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development for the mEducation Alliance, a paper for UNICEF on integrating ICTs into communication for development work with adolescent girls, and an overview of the role of ICTs in child and youth migration. Find her on Twitter: or on her website: http://lindaraftree.com/

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