Tag Archives: Benin

Concrete steps to make your ICT(4D) projects more gender inclusive and woman-friendly

Are you looking for a woman working in IT? Someone who’s bright, innovative, and ready to take risks? Someone who’s already trained in the basics and is excited to learn more?

Have you talked to a secretary lately?

People Online works with a lot of secretaries. It’s all well and good to sell the boss a shiny new website, but when it comes to maintenance and content, he (and it’s always a he) isn’t going to be the one updating content. Or checking email. Or responding to inquiries. Or analyzing statistics. Or editing graphics.

His secretary, on the other hand, knows how to turn on the computer. She probably prints out his emails every morning. She responds to everyone who fills out the contact form. She knows Word. She’s familiar with Excel. She knows how to do an Internet search, and she’s definitely on Facebook. She’s smart, she’s organized, and she knows that learning a new skill is her ticket to more power or a better job.

Directors are often skeptical when we request that their secretaries be include in our training sessions. Employees are equally skeptical. She’s “just” the secretary. She’s a “just” woman. Or worse, “she’s not a man”. She’s not well educated. She’s not. She’s not. She’s not. Sometimes, clients refuse. 3 months later, these same directors are paying us additional fees for another training session. For whom? You guessed it. Their secretaries.

I wish that secretaries would be a little bit less grateful for the attention and the confidence. I wish that their patrons would trust them right away to manage a website, instead of grouchily conceding the work to her for three months, then enthusiastically embracing the fact that they can shove all of the work they didn’t want to do anyway onto a woman who’s excited to do it.

The career paths of secretaries that we train change dramatically. They’re able to insist on better paychecks for the overtime they’re putting in maintaining websites. They earn more respect from their coworkers. Anyone can figure out Word, but the Internets are a scary and magical place, and she’s got the power to navigate it. And she has profesrole models. And she has a social network of similarly trained secretaries. And why is she still working as a secretary anyway, when she can move into design, documentation, or web production?

There are a lot of systemic barriers to women using technology. Linda speaks of many of them, and suggests reading the Plan report on girls. I agree. I also think that we, as innovators and pioneers in the technology space, have a responsibility to make sure that the discussion of women in tech here doesn’t devolve to look like the discussion back home in the States.

If you’re an entrepreneur in Africa, and you’re scratching your head about how to include women in your tech start-up, your ICT4D project, or your training sessions, I have a few concrete suggestions for you:

  1. Check out the secretaries and assistants of whatever organization you’re working with. Good ones have their finger on the pulse of an enterprise.
  2. Provide a social network of women in addition to any training. In societies where women are constantly bombarded with messages of inferiority and expectations of submissiveness to men, it helps to have a network of professional equals that you can go to for advice.
  3. Stop thinking of a non-technical background as a liability. Many of the entrepreneurs and managers you’ll be working with don’t have a technical background either, but because they’re male in a strongly patriarchal society, they’ve learned how to confidently bullshit about it. Also, hey! no bad habits to break.
  4. Find woman role models that can help those you’re working with navigate the complex maze of power, relationships, gender, and technology. These women don’t have to have a formal relationship with your program, but they should be part of the social network you’re making available to your trainees, employees, and project beneficiaries. If you cannot find any woman role models you are not looking hard enough and it is your fault, not the fault of women who aren’t visible enough.
  5. Create an inclusive social atmosphere. It is not the fault of any woman that she has to go home and cook for her family, instead of joining all of the men for drinks in the evening. It is not the fault of any woman that she cannot come to lunch-time bull sessions because she is breast feeding. It is not the fault of any woman that she is uncomfortable wearing sports clothes and playing basketball in a mixed gender setting. It is your fault for making these activities part of your project’s social expectations. Fix that.
  6. Listen to women. They’re not going to want to talk to you, a man, but you need to figure out the most culturally appropriate way to get them talking about the difficulties they face as women. It is not ever up to you, as a man or as a foreigner or as someone with a higher social status than them, to insist that something, anything, is not misogyny, sexism, or oppression. Just listen goddammit.

What are you doing to include and empower women in your technology projects?

Shopping for deep sea fish in Cotonou

Last week, I decided that I absolutely needed a hunk of fresh tuna. Never mind that I had no idea how to go about buying tuna. I had to have it. In Cotonou, salt water fish are bought fresh off the boat at the Port of Cotonou. Chaos reigns as fishermen and fish mongers negotiate prices and quantities. There’s never enough fish for all of the fish mongers to get their share, and the women get vicious. Once the women have their fish, they happily make their way to their stands, basins tottering precariously on their heads.

Fish in a basin

Yesterday, there was no tuna to be found. None had been brought in Sunday and frozen, and while there were still boats at see when I went to the market, the fish mongers didn’t expect to see any until later in the week. No problem. Now that I was at the fish market and had seen the fish debark from the boat, I was happy to settle for something else.

Fish in a basin

Bertrand and I went searching for good looking fish. Although we were hoping for some red carp, we were eventually convinced to buy Dorade. I only wanted one (they’re big!), but Bertrand wanted two. And since they’re sold in kilogram units, we bought three to bring the weight up to 2 kilos. 5 000 F CFA ($10!) for 2 kg of fish is a pretty good deal.

After paying for the fish, there are young women who are happy to scale and clean the fish for a hundred francs a kilo. Like all the women at the market, she was unwilling to have her picture taken. Next time, maybe. :)

Once home, I got online. What’s a dorade, and how do you cook one? Turns out, dorade is the French word for Mahi Mahi! We’d unknowingly brought home three enormous mahi mahis, something I definitely know how to cook.

Mahi mahi #1

Mmmmm. Dinner!

Pink partners with community radios to get the word out about breast cancer

Registration table at the hospital

This past weekend, PINK BENIN went up north to Parakou. We’ve been struggling to get out of Cotonou, and more importantly, get the message out to more women in order to a) start tracking breast cancer cases throughout the country and b) create a force strong enough to pressure the Beninese government into making cancer treatments more accessible to the rural pour.

We’re running the pilot with Peace Corps because they’re well integrated into their communities and are well placed to identify reliable partners. We invited 7 villages to send a Peace Corps Volunteer, a community health worker, and a community radio host to learn about breast cancer. The radio hosts will return to their communities and do short shows and PSAs talking about the importance of early testing. They’ll send the women to their community health workers, who will do a physical screaning and teach women how to self-exam. The Peace Corps Volunteer will act as a coordinator and will organize awareness raising sessions. Continue reading

Cutting the cheese in Benin

Wagasi for sale on the road

Ah, cheese. The one thing every expat in West Africa misses. Luckily, Benin has a local cheese that’s excellent, both as a cheese, fried, and as a tofu subsitute. Known commonly as wagasi, from Dendi, it goes by many names: amo in Fon, wara in Nagot, and gasaru in Bariba. The French simply call it fromage (cheese). Continue reading

Browser statistics and Commentary for Benin (or, IE6 isn’t going anywhere fast, so we might as well stop complaining and get back to work)

People Online still guarantees IE6 compatibility for almost 100% of the sites we develop. We don’t even charge extra for it! And this is why:

We’ve spent an awful lot of time in cybercafés in West Africa, and an awful lot of these cybercafés are still running Windows XP (or Windows 2000! Or Windows 98!) and IE6. Anecdotal evidence aside, the default install for Windows XP is IE6, and most offices here never upgrade (why should they?).

It’s all good and well to say that only stuffy corporate offices in the States are using IE6, but my experience has shown otherwise. I analyzed a sample of People Online’s 10 most trafficked websites, all aimed at both local and international audiences This criteria actually didn’t exclude anything, as none of the sites aimed exclusively internationally or locally made the top 10.

Browser share number crunching for Benin

19% of our traffic is local. Not bad, but not great. We should probably work more with clients to publicize the sites in country and optimize for Yahoo!, which gives us far more local referrals than Google (note to self: possible later blog post).

18.8% of our traffic uses IE6. This number by itself is relatively large, but still small enough that we could start quietly dropping support, warning our clients not to expect pixel-perfect results. Except that …

35.5% of our Beninese traffic is IE6. That is, over 1/3 of a major target audience is still using IE6. Oops. That’s far to large to drop support, especially considering that many sites have much higher percentages (up to 49.6%). In this sample, opposition newspapers tended to have the lowest IE6 usage rates, while pro-administration newspapers had the highest. That too probably merits its own blog post.

27.9% of Beninese users are using Firefox, and 16.6% are using IE7. Only are 15.4% using IE8. That might sound like good news for open source, but what it really means is that we’ve got a pretty even distribution of browsers, dominated by IE6. I imagine that Firefox will overtake IE6 by the end of 2010, but as long as IE6 is still overing around a third, we don’t have have a choice but to support it.

I think it’s marvelous that there are markets in Sub-Saharan Africa where IE6 holds a small enough share that developers can drop support. That’s wonderful! IE6 is a buggy disaster and it makes for both CSS and JavaScript nightmares; however, our market does not allow us to do the same. It doesn’t even allow us optional support.

Most of our local users connect from cybercafés and government offices. They don’t download the latest and greatest versions because it’s not their job to do so. If you’re in a developing market and you’re considering dropping IE6 support, take the time to study your analytics (you’re doing that anyway, right?). Africa’s Internet market is not monolithic.

On Freedom of the Press in Benin, and the New Lack Thereof

Freedom of the press and the right to say what I want, when I want, is something I take for granted. Despite the many problems that plague American media, our right to free speech is well protected. The press, while beholden to its corporate interests, does not fear jail or sanctions for telling the truth, nor for expressing a negative opinion about the current administration.

On November 3, CAPP FM, one of Benin’s oldest and certainly one of the most respected radio stations aired a program highly critical of the administration and several politicians. The administration reacted immediately, accusing the radio host of slander and inciting violence. The state has permanently removed her right to appear on the air in Benin. CAPP FM has been suspended for a month and has publicly apologized. If they had not apologized or had defended the woman, they risked having their license permanently revoked by the state.

Mme. VALDAVE Emailia hosts a religious show on CAPP FM. The following texts are those that the High Audiovisuel Communication Authority determined problematic (quoted directly from the text of the decision against the radio*):

» Que le sang de Jésus-Christ de Nazareth coule sur tous les hommes maintenant. Coule dans tous les services de l’Etat, les institutions de la République, les institutions étrangères, les représentants diplomatiques pour purifier ce pays le Bénin de toute souillure, de toute abomination, de tout esprit humain qui ne glorifie pas le nom de Jésus Christ de Nazareth, de tout esprit contraire au plan de DIEU pour ce pays »

That blood of Jesus Christ of Nazereth runs over men. Runs in all the departments of the State, the institutions of the Republic, foreign institutions, diplomatic representatives, to purify this country, the Benin, of all sin, of all abomination, of all human spirit that doesn’t glorifiy Christ, of all spirit against the plan of God for this country.

» Qu’avons-nous compris? Nous avons compris que vous [YAYI Boni] n’avez pas été quelqu’un avant de devenir quelque chose dans ce pays le Bénin. Nous avons compris que depuis trois ans nous vivons au Bénin, l’épisode d’une bande d’opportunistes en aventure; nous avons compris que vous êtes, non pardon que tu es scorpion. Mais pourquoi un scorpion? Le venin du scorpion est renfermé dans sa queue donc doux au départ, tendre au début mais féroce à la fin. C’est ce que tu es. Un scorpion qui commence bien, qui trompe au début et qui montre après son vrai visage »

What have we understood? We have come to understand that you [YAYI Boni] were no one before becoming something in this country, the Benin. We have understand that, during the last three years in Benin, we have lived an episode of a band of opportunistic adventurers; we have understand that you are, without pardon, a scorpion. And why a scorpion? The venom of a scorpion is locked up in its tail, so sweet in the beginning, tender in the beginning, but ferocious at the end. That’s what you are. A scorpion that starts well, who convinces in the beginning, and shows his true face afterwards.

Incendiary? Sure. Inciting violence? Well, not exactly. Television stations have been airing relevant bits of the radio show, and the clips used by the tribunal to judge the radio host and CAPP FM. Bizarrely, the clips don’t even appear to be controversial. It is true that in many ways life in Benin is worse in 2009 than it was in 2006. It is true that business in Cotonou has boomed, but the rural poor have been largely left behind. It is true that the state is more corrupt now than it was under Kérékou.

Benin has a long tradition of intellectualism, scholarship, and freedom of expression. Even during 17 years of dictatorship, the Beninese press was allowed to criticize the administration. Elections were held in 1991, and Benin saw Africa’s first peaceful transition between communist dictatorship and functioning democracy. YAYI Boni campaigned on change. “This can change. This must change. This will change.” Le changement lit the country on fire. In 2006, free and fair elections elected the Dr. Thomas Boni YAYI to power, with 75% suffrage.

Since 2006, freedom of expression and freedom of the press has been radically inhibited in Benin. Whether jailing journalists and editors who speak out against the administration, or sanctioning television and radio stations, the administration comes down hard on those who dare criticize.

Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) published their annual freedom of the press index. Benin has fallen from 23rd in 2006 to 72 in 2009. During the run-up to elections in 2011, I have a hard time imagining that things will get any better.

More information (in French, of course):

*Full disclosure: the Nokoue is a client.

On why language is important when talking about women in tech

This is the second in a series of posts where I address technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin. *

Accompanying the recent spate of questions about how to find more and better women speakers for tech conferences, the general lack of women in technology, and a lot of comments about women’s capabilities and skills, has been a dreadful abuse of the English language hinting that women just don’t hack it in the technology sphere.

Why is okay to say that Mike Arrington is an asshole, but calling Sarah Lacey a princess is off limits? Why is making snarky comments about Xeni’s good looks bad, but saying that Stii is adorable okay?

In a word, privilege. What? What’s privilege, you say? It’s being the default (male) and benefiting from living in a patriarchal society that is institutionally sexist. It’s not intentional and it is not the same thing as being sexist or misogynist. If you have privilege, you can’t help it, and you can’t get rid of it. But you should realize it exists. Here’s a great list of privileges men have that women don’t. It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’m excerpting items that are particularly relevant to this discussion.

If I am male …

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

41. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

So what does this all mean, and how does it apply to talking about women in tech?

There are a lot of snotty jerks who think they’re smarter than everyone else in the tech sphere. There are a lot of pundits whose qualifications are doubtful at best. But singling out women as being particularly unqualified is unfair and contributes to the “boys club” feeling that tech often has. When you call a man an asshole, that man is an asshole. When you say that there are too many princesses writing about tech, you’re making a point about women, not just that woman.

In a male dominated sphere, especially one as related to show biz as the start-up scene, women get farther by being beautiful, charming, and having a larger than life personality. This is not any particular woman’s fault. It’s the fault of a patriarchal system that makes women sex objects first and entrepreneurs second.

In “Technology, the African women in it, and beer”, Miquel said:

For women (again in North America and Europe) the focus is usually on being some cutesy girl who does the occasional special interest piece, but who has no idea which end of a conditional statement is up. The worst of this type are the Sarah Laceys and Xeni Jardins of the world because they create a perception that if you’re a cute, sexy girl, then that’s all that matters. In other words, style and appearance far outweigh the substance of what they write.

Sure, their good looks might be what appeals to a lot of misogynist geeks, but the reality is that these women write very competently about technology. You don’t have to be a programmer to write about tech. Mike Arrington and Corey Doctorow aren’t techies, but nobody runs around questioning their right to write about technology.

Using words like “princess” and “diva” to negatively class women participating in the tech scene reinforces privilege by reinforcing the idea that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove herself, especially if she is beautiful. It’s not enough that she’s participating. Now, she has to participate in exactly the way and manner that men want her to. She has to be conscious of the image she projects, not simply for her own good, but because for many readers, she represents her entire gender.

There are many kinds of women. Happy women. Sad women. Beautiful women. Ugly women. Smart women. Technical women. Nice women. Mean women. We want more women in tech. We want more woman programmers, more woman pundits, more woman critics, more woman writers, more woman presenters, more woman everything. And that means welcoming everyone, whether you feel like you can take them out for a beer or not.

Both Africa and the West need more women in tech. Continuing to stereotype western women in tech as princesses and divas only worsens the problem, instead of fixing it. Certainly, it gives no credit to the thousands of women that spend their entire lives developing new and exciting technologies.

* Parts of this post are excerpted from an email that I sent to Miquel before picking on him in public.

On women in tech, in Benin and back home in the States

This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll discuss technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin.

My clients are all businessmen. Accent on men. After over two years of developing websites and web applications in Cotonou, we have a lot of clients (what can I say, we’re good at what we do!). Of these clients, two are women.

Less than 5% of all the clients we’ve taken on in two years are women.

I taught web development at Benin’s best public business school. Less than 10% of my students were women and of these, 100% wanted to go into MIS, not programming. A shame, because the quality of the women’s work was far more consistent than that of their male counterparts. I have yet to work with a female coder.

So why aren’t there more women in tech and running tech businesses in Benin?

  • Maternity leave makes women less competitive and more expensive to hire. Despite any legal protections in place, paternity leave effectively does not exist, although most businesses allow a few days.
  • There are far fewer girls in higher education than men. Women have lower literacy rates and higher dropout rates for a number of reasons.
  • Women face strong social pressure to take on jobs that allow time off to take care of a family because day-to-day childcare is the women’s responsibility and not the man’s.
  • Women are considered more caring, more nurturing, and more illogical than their male counterparts. And the behaviors that make for successful managers are socially inacceptable for women.
  • Women are expected to get married and start a family. Until they’ve done this, they won’t be taken seriously or considered successful. After they’ve done this, they’ve got kids, which is not conducive to taking risks like starting a business or working for a start-up.
  • Paradoxically, the strong pressure on rich upwardly mobile women to not depend on their husbands for income makes choosing a risky career harder for the very women who should have it easier.
  • Women who do succeed in tech are marginalized socially for a number of reasons, including their small numbers, their perceived sexuality, and the fact that they can’t out drinking with the boys when there’s a baby at home waiting for them.
  • Men don’t like it when women initially intrude into traditionally male spheres.
  • Misogyny.

Wait a second, how many of these points are true for the States too?

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the lack of women at TechChruch50, at tech conferences, and in the technology sphere in general*. A great deal of the commentary is women responding, “Yes, of course there’s a problem,” and men responding, “What do you want from me?!?! We live in post-feminist world. Sexism is dead, okay?!?!”

As a woman who lives in the developing world, this kind of rhetoric falls particularly flat because it’s the same rhetoric that encourages sexism and misogyny here. “We let you vote, what more do you want?” “We gave you legal protection from discrimination. If you’re sexually harassed on the job, you must have been asking for it.” “Women are just naturally more nurturing. That’s why they should stay home and take care of the kids.” “Men shouldn’t have to help level the playing field. It’s not our fault women just aren’t interested in tech. Finding quality women conference speakers who can serve as examples and mentors and even tokens is hard and shouldn’t be our responsibility.”

Sound familiar to anyone else? It’s so weird that the same men who can be so open about the difficulties faced by women in emerging economies are so bloody blind when it comes to their home turf.

Starting Pink BENIN, a Beninese charity (subtitled, “Why Theresa doesn’t have spare time anymore, not like she ever did”)

logos-ong-02-copie1I’ve mentioned Pink BENIN and the work we do briefly here, in emails, and on Twitter, but I haven’t really gone into a lot of detail about what’s become a huge part of my life.

How Pink BENIN got started

About six months ago, a Beninese friend of ours came back from a trip to France and told us she’d gone to remove several lumps from her breasts, and to undergo treatment for breast cancer. This woman is a woman of means and education. She studied in both France and the United States, and is persuing a successful second career as a banker. Her first, as a journalist, was equally successful. All this to say that she is rather atypical of Beninese women in that she has access to wealth and knowledge.

After finding a lump, she approached her family doctor, who told her that, while she could have the lump removed in country, he didn’t really know where to send her for further treatment. X-Ray therapy? Chemo therapy? Can that even be done in West Africa? That was all beyond him. She combed the network of Beninese doctors until she was given recommendations for a doctor in Paris. The process was humiliating, time consuming, and frustrating. Upon her return, she annonced her intention to form Pink BENIN, a non-profit dedicated to helping women survive breast cancer.

We don’t want to cure breast cancer, just stop women from dying from it so bloody often

We want to inform women and doctors that breast cancer doesn’t have to be fatal. We want to teach women how to self examen. We want to dispurse social taboos about maladies that touch women and our sexuality. We want doctors and midwives to know what breast cancer is and where to send women when they find lumps. We want to lower the cost of surgery, and bring x-ray therapy to Benin. We want mammographs in major population centers outside of Cotonou, and we want women to use them anually. We want women to form support networks that encourage self testing and early screening. Most of all, we want to lower the cost of treatment so that women don’t have to die from beast cancer.

Sounds like a lot? Well, we’re ambitious, but we’re also working with smart doctors and health professionals to design programs and projects that do as much as we can with as little funding as possible. We have several models, and while none of them will completely cover our costs, we think we’ll be able to get buy without major gov’t funding for a little while.

What do I think of all this?

Personally, as an American who started out as a Peace Corps Volunteer and ended up emmigrating, it’s a very rewarding experience to work a group of dedicated men and women who aren’t counting on int’l aid to come in and save the day. I see it as the same “volunteering” I did back home; however, this time I sit on the board of directors.

We don’t have any staff (yet), so everyone pitches in where we’re needed. It’s very hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m learning a lot. I wish I knew more about running a charity, running a non-profit, the public health sector, community organizing, and herding cats. While this sort of thing hasn’t yet been done in Benin, it *has* been done throughout the developed world. There are even models as close as the Ivory Coast!

We’re doing our best to learn as much as we can as fast as we can. It’s amazing the work we’ve already done (I’ll write some follow-up posts on that, I think). We’re all terribly worried about doing more harm than good, but we’re also worried about being paralyzed by worry.

If you’re interested in what we do, check out our website at pinkbenin.org.