UN Secretary-General to African girl coders: It needs a movement of girls to bring more women in science and technology

Date: Monday, February 11, 2019

Hanna Wassihun and UN Secretary-General António Guterres disscuss the African Girls Can Code. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth
Hanna Wassihun and UN Secretary-General António Guterres disscuss the African Girls Can Code. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth

When Rebecca Azanaw got the news that she would get to meet the Secretary-General of the United Nations, nothing could keep her away from the opportunity, not even crunch time at school as the 17-year-old was preparing for her semester exams.

Azanaw was among more than 80 girls who participated in the first coding camp as part of the African Girls Can Code Initiative in September 2018. On 9 February, she and 10 other girls from the programme met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to share their experiences and ambitions.

“I am very proud that I got to be one of the first African girls to do the camp. That was a chance for me to start coding seriously,” she said.

Coding camp participant Sizolwethu Mophanga shows UN Secretary-General António Guterres what she has learned. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth
Coding camp participant Sizolwethu Mophanga shows UN Secretary-General António Guterres what she has learned. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth

Since the coding camp, Azanaw has continued to hone her skills in python programming language. She is also spreading her new skills, by founding a coding club at her school, Andinet International School, in Addis Ababa, to teach other young girls to code.

“I want other girls to know that they can do it. If they want to, it is possible to achieve what they want to achieve,” Azanaw added. 

For Ruth Mulu, 18, also a participant of the programme, meeting the UN Secretary-General was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I am still overwhelmed; I woke up at 5 a.m. and came to the meeting earlier than the other girls. Although I lived near [the venue], I just couldn’t sit and wait at home,” she said.

The coding camp empowered her to help other girls see through the stereotype that computer coding is a man’s job. Today Mulu is coding, teaching other girls in her school to code and changing the mindsets of friends and family members. Since attending the coding camp, she has designed a digital logo using her coding skills that is now being used by her school for its annual celebration.

Participants in the African Girls Can Code Initiative. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth
Participants in the African Girls Can Code Initiative. Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth

“If more girls and women are not joining these professions, the power relations of the world will remain very male dominated,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, addressing the girls and representatives of various UN Agencies and dignitaries, adding that it needs a movement of girls to bring more women into the field of science and technology, including ICT. 

He commended the African Girls Can Code Initiative for involving young girls across the continent and said, “What we are doing here is helping more girls come into ICT. What I have seen today is very impressive.”

The UN Secretary-General was joined by Deputy Ambassador of Denmark, Sune Krogstrup, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, and UN Women officials including Letty Chiwara, Representative for Eastern and Central Africa, in his meeting with 11 young girls from the African Girls Can Code Initiative, a partnership between UN Women, ITU and the African Union commission, on Saturday. The girls shared their stories on what it meant to be part of the coding camp and technological solutions that they are working on since their training in the camp.

Participants in the African Girls Can Code Initiative take a selfie with UN Secretary-General António Guterres . Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth
Participants in the African Girls Can Code Initiative take a selfie with UN Secretary-General António Guterres . Photo: UN Women/Kennedy Okoth

African Girls Can Code Initiative (2018-22) is a joint programme by UN Women and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and funded by the Government of Denmark, aiming to nurture young girls to develop interest in coding and facilitate their career choices in ICT. In September 2018, the programme brought together 88 girls aged 17 – 20 from 32 African countries at the first coding camp. By 2022, 14 coding camps will be organized to take the programme to more than 1,000 girls across Africa.