5Rights speaks to Towela Nyirenda Jere, our Trustee and one of Malawi's first female engineers

5Rights spoke to Towela Nyirenda Jere, one of the Malawi’s first female engineers and a Trustee of 5Rights.  Towela has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, specialising in Telecommunications and Networking, with over twenty years’ experience in the private sector, academia, and international development. Towela joined the University of Malawi as a lecturer during which time she served with the United Nations Volunteer Programme on the Cisco Networking Academy project. She was part of IEEE’s adhoc advisory board, set up to improve Africa’s technical workforce development and skills. She has worked in the private sector, installing networks in Malawi’s banks, colleges and universities, and for the government. This work constituted real changed for Malawians, giving them the freedom to access resources and information, transact remotely, and facilitated online learning. During a year’s break, she undertook leadership facilitation, training and organisational development, before starting a role in 2009, at NEPAD, now the African Union’s Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD). She focused on ICT education, before becoming interested in public policy, setting up an Internet Governance programme across Africa. Now, Towela works in the Economic Division at AUDA-NEPAD, where she focuses on various aspects of infrastructure development including connectivity and access to markets and trade. As head of the division, she is working to develop an approach that considers ICT, transport, energy, water infrastructure development collectively: as in Africa she says, many communities can’t roll out ICT if they don’t have access to energy; they also need transport, and so on.

Towela talks to us about her ‘wake up’ call, children and young people’s rights online in Africa, and her hopes for 2020.  

Hi Towela, thank you for talking with us while you are in London, we really appreciate it! When and why did you become interested in children and young people’s rights in the digital space? Why are they important?

It’s an interesting question! It probably speaks to the transformational leadership side of things: one of the important messages that I was taught, is that you can’t stand on the side-lines, you must step up and be involved. It was also a bit of a wake-up call for me personally in the sense that I had been working in the space, I had been working on internet governance, on public policy, on people’s rights online, but I never thought about the of rights of children online. It made me realise how much we take for granted, and how much we miss out on by not focusing on children. I think it also resonated with me, within the context of Africa at the time: the conversation over the last five years or so has been about the demographics of Africa and how that is changing. 65% of the population are under the age of 20. We have a very youthful population, yet, we encourage kids to get online, we are encouraging everyone to move towards the fourth industrial revolution, but we are not talking about how to protect children when they in these digital spaces: how to ensure safeguarding and making sure they can interact safety. I’m sure you have examples of people that have interacted with digital natives, and that they don’t understand how vulnerable they are online. My children don’t understand how vulnerable they are online! You constantly have to tell them to be careful because you don’t know whose on the other side, you don’t know when they ask you for information, why are they asking for information, what they are going to do with it, and what that then means for you. I think that was why I thought it was important to get involved, and this is also why I became a trustee for 5Rights.

What is the status of ‘rights’ online for children and young people in Africa? How do these divert from the way that we understand rights, for instance, from a UK perspective?

Culturally, we are different, a bit different from Europe, America, Asia. In our culture, a child is a child is a child. Children have rights, but they are to the extent that parents are willing to give, or accommodate, those rights. While they can express themselves freely, it is only to the extent that the parents allow them to do so freely. When you talk about digital spaces, it causes a bit of a problem: how do we balance the cultural context with the digital space, where there is not that cultural context. Parents don’t have the same kind of control, as in the offline world. That becomes a bit of a challenge, because you then have children caught between two worlds: caught between what culture says, but are having to engage in the digital space where the safe container of culture doesn’t exist. How does one navigate and balance this?

One other thing, from our perspective, more and more rights are very politicised, and become a very political issue. You’ve got the Arab Spring, and all these other instances of young people agitating for political change. That can be challenging, because governments don’t really know what to do with this. When you talk about young people having rights, if it’s not expressed properly, it becomes a political issue rather than a social issue.

Where are policy conversations focussed at the moment in Africa, in relation to children and young people online? 

Because we are in this catch up and leap frogging mood, there is a big push for giving people access, whether that is young people or not. This means not only access, but affordable access. There is a lot of emphasis on affordable access. There is also a lot of emphasis on content and localised content, and being able to give content that is meaningful to them, and that is produced locally.

Issues of data protection and issues of online protection are maybe not discussed to the degree that you would see in other places. We are still so focused on the access side of things that we have not grappled so much with the other side of data protection and privacy, and child online protections. But also, what we are seeing as more people come online, and more people are transacting and interacting and engaging online, is that we are seeing more spam, hacking, and identity theft. Data protection and privacy and online protection is becoming more of an issue as a result of these things. But in terms of policymaking, it’s more of a reactive process than proactive.

What would you like to see African policymakers work towards in 2020 when they discuss the digital environment? 

A lot of countries, you see a lot of them talking about digital economy, about the fourth industrial revolution. They talk about the need to skill and up-skill, which I think is good. What then needs to accompany that conversation is an understanding of the other side which is, when people get online, what does that then mean? How can we ensure that they can engage online safety? How do we make sure that when we talk about trade and the issue of trade, it is only going to be effective or efficient to the extent that we can secure the transaction? If I cannot guarantee that a transaction is safe and secure, then that will affect my ability to trade in the digital space.

One of my main wishes is that our policymakers understand this interaction between cybersecurity, privacy, data protection and trade. I would ask that they see it not that we are just asking them to secure the digital space for the sake of it, but that it does have implications on a lot of other things. Africa right now is focussed on this issue of trade, looking at inter-regional trade, and well as trade with the rest of the world. The only way we’ll be able to do that, the free movement of goods and services, is if we guarantee security of movements and transactions. In this instance, data protection becomes very big issue. When you look at the fact that more and more, it is young people who are coming online and engaging in these transactions, their online protection and privacy becomes a big issue as well. I really would like to see that link between securing our online spaces, data protection, privacy, online protections, and how we link that to other issues, such as trade.

I recently spoke with the ex-UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, and she was telling me that, especially in Asia, it’s a real problem that English is pretty much the language of the internet. Children and young people may be able to access an internet connection, but they are not able to fully access all of the opportunities of the digital space, because it’s not in their language. 

It’s a similar thing in Africa. For us, colonial legacy has made it so that in a lot of countries, the language that is used for business is the language that comes from the colonial legacy: you have anglophone, francophone, lusophone, and so on. However, within all that, we have our own indigenous languages as well. You find that schooling and business are done in English or French, but socially, we converse in own language. When I’m online, I would like to see content that is in my own language, and content that is culturally relevant to me. If young people are not enabled as content creators, and not enabled to value content in local languages, it means that we will always have bias towards content that is not in own languages.

Are there clear messages that you hear from children and young people with regards to the digital environment? Are they about connection, communication and access, or are there other messages that you are hearing? 

It’s access, and affordable access, yes. But it’s also the freedoms: and in different countries, those freedoms exist in varying degrees. It is also, we see, that young people are looking for entrepreneurial or entrepreneurship opportunities online, but at the same time, they are perhaps lacking in how to protect their ideas: How do they deal with issues of intellectual property? How do they make sure that when they do have an idea, that they can develop that idea and take to market, without it being hijacked by other forces? Those are some things that are important. In some other instances, it’s about safe spaces: how do you create safe spaces for young people online?

This has been so interesting, Towela. Thank you so much for speaking with us!