„I am a Digital Citizen.“

Roya Mahboob ist eine Entrepreneurin mit Star-Status: 2013 wurde sie als eine der Top 100 Influential People by TIME magazine ausgezeichnet. Zwei Jahre später erfolgte die Auszeichnung zur World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders 2015. Was sie so besonders macht? Sie kommt aus Afghanistan und kämpft dafür, Frauen für die IT-Branche auszubilden – und so kulturelle Barrieren zu überwinden und ihr Land für die Zukunft fit zu machen.

Roya, how did you get started in IT and even as an entrepreneur?

At the early age of 16, I had the opportunity to experience using internet by myself – my first experience using the web and it opened my eyes to a wider world. I realized for the first time, that there is more out there than what was right around me. From that moment on, I became determined to somehow make technology the center of my career.

One of your aims is to educate a new generation of women through digital literacy – how are you working towards this goal?
My aim is to bring new opportunities and equal access to education for women and girls in Afghanistan. I deeply believe that technology can bring social change. Over the last years, I worked with modern technology and social media to enable school girls and boys in Afghanistan to have access to the Web and to connect them to information sources worldwide. Through our hard work, patience and love we will embed that change. The majority of girls and women in developing countries like Afghanistan are ,disconnected’ from the modern world due to lack of access to the internet and technology. For these girls and women, who are in the prime of their formative and creative years, the technology and internet undeniably symbolizes a world of opportunity.

More importantly, it represents an ideal platform for learning new skills that can empower them to become more independent and self-sufficient during the internet era. To do this, I started a nonprofit called the Digital Citizen Fund, giving women access to technology and teaching them how to use it.

Digital literacy is just one way of several to help educate young women. Why are you focusing on IT-knowledge?
I experienced how technology empowered women and girls in developing countries. It enabled families and communities to establish very sustainable economic livelihoods. ICT skills for women and girls provide them with other options and possibilities than the traditional jobs – that are often so difficult for women to hold in Afghanistan. For instance, it may allow them to work from home. Technology offers local as well as international business opportunities, creative entrepreneurial and e-commerce projects. But I also realize that this is quite a long way to go so that Afghan women can harness that potential. There are millions of girls out there who are curious, but given only a narrow world to explore. What I really wanted to do was to use the success I had realized to give young girls exactly what I was lucky enough to find when I was young – a door that opened to the rest of the world. This has the power to dramatically change how conservative societies see and treat women.

How would you describe the current IT market in Afghanistan and the challenges it faces?
ICT is the one of the most successful sectors in Afghanistan with more than 65 percent connected fiber optic. The country has about 20 million mobile phone subscriptions. 80 percent of Afghan women have somehow access to mobile technology – either through their own cell phone or through a phone belonging to a family member. But women have faced a variety of obstacles to a full and equal access to technology: due to lack of digital literacy, financial access, lack of awareness of the internets potential or cultural barriers and gender norms that limit free movement in both their daily and professional lives.

What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome on the road to your success?
In the beginning, it was hard for us to get work, because most people did not want to do business with women. Then, when we did bring on a client, they often refused to pay us for the work we did. My employees and I were threatened. We were spied on. Many of our programmers left because their families put immense pressure on them to return to the home where they said a woman should be. But as a business woman, I also had to face further challenges. Like other business women, I had less access to commercial financing or loans. 81 percent of business women in Afghanistan do not have access to such resources. Additionally, there was a lot of corruption in the government and private sectors. Besides the cultural barriers, which I have already mentioned. In particular these cultural barriers, which limit free movement in our daily, as well as professional life, could be overcome by technologies. By seeking out how to tackle these challenges, I realized that social media in particular helped me to get at least a digital voice. I could connect with other parts of the world, grew my business in collaboration with but also in other countries. I was not limited anymore by my countrys borders. I became a digital citizen of the global information society.

What did you do after you were named  as one of the Top 100 Influential People by TIME magazine?
It was an honor to be named as one of TIME magazines 100 Most Influential People in the world. It has opened a door of opportunity to meet with inspiring, influential people and expand my business.  But it also got the attention of the conservative people and local Taliban. And they began to threaten my employees and me. They believed that fear would drive us away.

Do you feel endangered?
And if yes, how do you deal with the constant feeling? I tried to keep my physical profile lower while expanding our online presence. In some cases we started to work from home. One particular cultural barrier in our country limits our free movement – one we could overcome by technology. One of the major advantages of online teaching is that it is available around the world – provided people have internet access and there is no restriction of websites.

Are you planning to go beyond  teaching Afghan girls?
Yes. At the moment I am working on a new platform called EdyEdy – educate yourself. It is a platform for schools and businesses, where students from anywhere can get practical training and applied skills that make them employable by companies. My mission is to bridge the gap between school based education and real local jobs. Many organizations have identified that employment possibilities are critical in the development of a country. I see a huge benefit in providing useful and applied skills to both boys and girls. This will be my next larger project I am working on. It is a project that is still in the beginnings, but I hope it can be realized and have the desired impact. I see myself as a global citizen and with projects like EdyEdy, I want to not only reach girls in Afghanistan, moreover, I want to connect Afghanistan with many other countries. I think through communication and interaction we can learn to know and understand each other.

If you could give young women around the world three pieces of advice on how to be successful as a woman in a seemingly ,men’s world’ – what would you tell them? 
Be courageous, believe on your own ability and have strong commitment to your work. If you stand for what you really want, it will make your work easier in a male dominated industry.

In your opinion – how can other companies help young women in developing countries to achieve better education, no matter what industry/branch they want to work in? 
I think if other companies tried to give back to the community by investing in education and technology, it would bring social changes to developing countries. No matter where the women live, we need to give them the tools to imagine and pursue the life they want. Connectivity is something that we all take for granted and something that is absolutely necessary to have a place in our changing world.

More information can be found online at digitalcitizenfund.org.

Das Gespräch führte Bettina Riedel.

Stand: Sommer 2016