Skills to last a lifetime: How girls in Uzbekistan are learning tech and helping others
“I’m originally from a small desert town called Uchkuduk,” says Malika, age 14. “And like a lot of other girls, I took dancing and singing classes and never thought about technology,” she says.
That’s a common refrain. In many places around the world, the so-called “STEM” subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—are dominated by boys. But schools in Uzbekistan are trying to get girls more involved, too.
Things changed for Malika when her family moved to Tashkent, the capital city. “I missed my friends back home so much,” she says. But she also found exciting new opportunities and started taking courses in graphic design, movie making, and other technologies.
One weekend, Malika saw an announcement calling on girls to take part in something called the “Technovation Challenge Uzbekistan.” The challenge is part of a global nonprofit called Technovation that helps girls solve real-world problems through technology, and is supported in Uzbekistan by multiple United Nations agencies and other organizations.
Malika and several other girls formed a team in 2019 and talked about what issues they might address. “Back in my hometown,” Malika told her teammates, “a lot of kids’ fathers or other relatives had to leave Uzbekistan to find work.” Other girls had similar stories. They were noticing on a local scale what is a national trend: hard economic times are driving more and more Uzbekistanis to migrate to Russia, Europe, East Asia and beyond in search of work.
“This was personal for us,” Malika says. “We wanted to help migrants have safer journeys.” Malika’s team met with staff from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to brainstorm about how to use technology to help.
The team created a mobile app called “Plov Time,” which gives information on migrant labor laws in different countries, how to apply for a migration card, and how to deal with emergencies such as when they are detained.
“This project was a double-win,” says Sanjarbek Toshbaev, country manager of the IOM in Uzbekistan.
“Migrants win because they get a really useful app in Plov Time. And girls also win, because they get involved in technology and other STEM topics. Both of those are good for the country.”
Made with Love and a Smile
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Tashkent, and two teenage sisters, Nastarin and Sevinch, are playing hide-and-seek with their 8-year-old brother, Akhmadjon, at a local museum.
“My brother was born with Down syndrome,” Sevinch explains. “There are limited opportunities for early childhood education for kids with Down Syndrome. So we did some research. We found that many organizations use the ‘Ages and Stages’ questionnaire to screen for Down Syndrome and help young people progress.”
For the Technovation Challenge in 2018, the sisters and two other teammates developed the “Sun Child” app, which uses the questionnaire to help parents evaluate the skills of a child born with Down Syndrome.
“When doctors told me that my son Rustam was born with Down Syndrome, I was shocked and I didn’t know how to cope,” says Aziza Karimova, family care coordinator of Umnichka, an education NGO. “I wish I had had a tool like Sun Child. I think this app can really help all parents and children to start their development pathways.”
Inspired by the Technovation Challenge, Nastarin continued exploring further opportunities in the tech sector. She and some friends received a tech award in South Korea in 2019, when they presented an app that helps include children with disabilities in regular classrooms. Her sister Sevinch is now a student at Inha University in Tashkent, which specializes in technology and business.
“This programme provides an important catalyst to get more girls into STEM,” says Helena Fraser, UN Resident Coordinator in Uzbekistan.
“They learn skills that will last them a lifetime. All it takes is some support and encouragement. And by providing that support, we tackle inequalities and innovate for change.”
Progress for families means progress for Uzbekistan
Since its launch in 2017, the Technovation Challenge has backed more than 500 young programmers across Uzbekistan—all of them girls—and focused on such issues as education, health, and poverty. Girls were provided with mentors and publicity support from several UN agencies, including IOM, UNICEF, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Projects like the Technovation Challenge have spurred a growing interest in STEM subjects among girls and women. For example, the Challenge’s academic partner, Inha University in Tashkent, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women students—from 8% in 2016 to 35% in 2018, and still climbing. Such progress in line with Uzbekistan’s national goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
“The Technovation Challenge helped me to become more confident, improve my public speaking skills, and work in a team,” says Malika. “Now my dream is to create something cool that will help as many people as possible.”
Malika looks at her watch. She has to rush off to her coding class at Inha University.
“I am a girl,” she says, confidently. “Who says I can’t make it?”
Produced by UN Uzbekistan. Story by Anvar Meliboev, UN Information Officer, UN Uzbekistan, with editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more, visit: https://uzbekistan.un.org/.