girl with Down's syndrome play puzzle toy with her teacher.

A divided digital generation: How we risk further excluding girls with disabilities from education.

The International Day of the Girl is a chance to celebrate the achievements of girls around the world and the progress being made towards equality. But it is also a time to reflect and push for greater equality and inclusion for all girls.

This year’s theme, “Digital Generation. Our Generation” stood out to me. Every day more and more people across the globe are becoming connected through the internet, allowing young people to access new opportunities, new information and social connection. But as we celebrate this digital generation, we must also pause to consider the risk that our digital focus poses to millions of girls already excluded from accessing their basic universal rights to freedom, choice, education, and protection.

Across Africa, 10% fewer girls with disabilities complete primary education compared to girls without disabilities. When they do stay in school, their performance is likely to be worse. I have seen first-hand the scale at which children and communities are simply being left behind. In Rwanda, Chance for Childhood supports girls with communication disabilities including the Deaf community to have the same opportunities as their hearing peers, such as access to services like healthcare and education. But they live in remote areas, where homes still don’t have electricity, let alone an internet connection. They are not yet part of a digital generation, and we must not allow them to be forgotten.

Girls with disabilities face double discrimination and huge risks

Amongst those girls, already too often excluded from society, we must acknowledge the needs of girls with disabilities who face even greater barriers to accessing their rights. In rural areas, where 65% of the population live in poverty, they’re less likely to go to school. Families who have very little money to spend on their children’s education often prioritise boys. But Deaf girls face even greater risks. Deep-rooted stigma means they are shunned by their communities and at risk of violence and abuse.

In northern Rwanda, Chance for Childhood’s research found that 92% of victims of sexual violence were girls with communication disabilities.

When deaf girls face sexual gender-based violence, they have no way of telling anybody. Even if they do have a form of communication, like sign language, reporting is difficult. They can’t communicate with the police, nurses and lawyers who staff Rwanda’s “One Stop Centres”; designed to provide free support to survivors of gender-based violence and child abuse. The scale of the problem is huge. Research by the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf shows that 99% of deaf people in Rwanda don’t have access to state-provided sign language interpreting during judicial proceedings.

We’re educating and empowering Deaf girls in their communities

As a strategic partner to the Government of Rwanda and UNICEF in child-centred disability inclusion, we’re passionate about ensuring that innovation to advance the rights of girls with disabilities isn’t confined to the digital space. Together with International and community-based partners, EmCD and MindLeaps we have just launched a new programme to deliver dance classes for Deaf girls alongside their hearing peers.

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Led by inclusion-trained dance teachers, this programme brings about lasting bonds and breaks down barriers of stigma and exclusion. It increases’ confidence and self-esteem amongst girls, helping them to become agents of change in their own communities by participating in community events and bringing their issues and opinions to community leaders.

It’s crucial that we make basic services inclusive too. Across ten schools, we’re training teachers in sign language to accommodate Deaf girls in the classroom. Crucially, we’re also providing training in inclusive safeguarding and sign language to staff at the One Stop Centres, as well as Nyabihu’s 16 health centres. Deaf girls should be able to access these services just like any other citizen.

The backdrop of a deep digital divide

The pandemic highlighted the deep digital divide that exists across many of the communities where we work. In urban areas, most people can access the internet from their homes. Yet in the very remote rural areas, families don’t have electricity, let alone internet access.

During Rwanda’s lockdowns and school closures, this pushed already-marginalised children in these communities further behind. They couldn’t access e-learning opportunities. They couldn’t access educational broadcasts on TV. For Deaf girls and children, radio broadcasts were simply not accessible. These children went months without any form of formal education or interaction with their peers and many lost years of progress. Right now, they are not part of the digital generation.

One schoolteacher told me what some children with disabilities went through when schools were closed. “Our children with disabilities have experienced increased violence, mental and emotional stress during the period of school closure at home. Some of them were exposed to physical, sexual and or emotional violence. They have lost a lot of the progress they made before the pandemic.”

Digital solutions are not always a silver bullet. We’ve already seen how e-learning over lockdowns left the poorest children behind, widening inequalities. For children with disabilities, a focus on digital could well provide opportunities, but it can equally exacerbate the inequalities that already exist. One thing is certain, we must fight for digital innovation to be disability inclusive, but we must not forget to innovate away from the digital space. For our generation is not exclusively a digital generation.