Tuesday February 19, 2019
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“The Restorers” : Kenyan Girls Use Technology to Combat Female Genital Mutilation

5 Kenyan Girls and Dorcas Owinoh, the team’s mentor have together created an app called i-Cut, which connects girls at risk of FGM with rescue agents and offers support for those who have already been cut

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  • They have created an app called i-Cut which connects girls at risk of FGM with rescue agents and offers support for those who have already been cut
  • The pain of having your clitoris cut just because someone wants to have you go through a rite of passage

“It’s still fresh in my mind, the scene of female genital mutilation,” said Purity Achieng, a 17-year-old from Kenya.

Achieng was speaking on stage in the finals of the Technovation Challenge World Pitch Summit, a competition that invites girls from around the world to come up with tech solutions to local community problems. Since it began in 2009, 15,000 girls from more than 100 countries have participated in the competition.

Achieng and her team of four other Kenyan teen girls call themselves “The Restorers.” They are taking on Female Genital Mutilation or FGM. They have created an app, called i-Cut, which connects girls at risk of FGM with rescue agents and offers support for those who have already been cut. It also provides information for anyone seeking to learn more about the practice.

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“The pain of having your clitoris cut just because someone wants to have you go through a ‘rite of passage,’” said Achieng, during her pitch at the competition. “It’s painful and no one wants to listen to you. You cry and there you are, almost dying but nobody is caring about that.”

At least 200 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation or FGM in 30 countries, reports UNICEF and 44 million are girls 14 and younger. The practice involves cutting out all or part of a woman’s clitoris, which is said to eliminate almost completely a woman’s sexual pleasure, in hopes of ensuring her virginity and keeping her faithful in marriage.

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The Kenyan girls in this competition have not experienced FGM firsthand, as their tribe does not practice it, but they have friends who have. One of Achieng’s best friends was forced to drop out of school and into an early marriage at 15 after FGM, which greatly affected Achieng.

“I think for teenagers to be able to identify problems around them and provide a solution, that is really inspiring,” said Dorcas Owinoh, the team’s mentor, who works as a community manager at LakeHub, a technology innovation hub in Kisumu, Kenya. It was Owinoh who brought the idea of the Technovation Challenge to the team.

ALSO READ: Kenyan girls pedal towards a better future

Achieng said it was her friend dropping out of school after FGM that inspired the team to create the app.

Other teams in the international event came from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Cambodia, the U.S. and other countries. The Restorers were the only team who qualified from the African continent.

“It’s always better when the people who face the problems, come up with their own solutions because they’re the most organic,” said Tara Chklovski, founder, and CEO of Iridescent, the nonprofit behind Technovation.

Though the i-Cut app has the potential to save lives, it has not been embraced by all Kenyans. “One village elder drove six hours to their school to protest the app because, according to him, that’s an African culture and the girls are being, according to him, Westernized,” Owinoh said.

The man had learned of the app after local media reported of the girl’s acceptance into Technovation. Owinoh said school leaders and teachers remained calm, spoke with him, and then asked him to leave.

ALSO READ: Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in Kenya in Return for Food

Technovation comes at a time when women in technology are facing blowback, not just in Kenya, but even at the Google headquarters where the competition was held. A Google employee was recently fired after writing a memo positing that women are biologically inferior to men in regards to working in technology.

“I know the journey won’t always be easy but to the girls who dream of being an engineer or an entrepreneur and who dream of creating amazing things, I want you to know that there’s a place for you in this industry, there’s a place for you at Google—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the girls.

The Restorers did not win the Technovation Challenge, but they will continue their fight against FGM and hope to get i-Cut into the Google Play Store soon. (VOA)

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Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

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Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

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Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)