The Internet Society has a vision that the Internet must be open, global, and secure for the good of all people. But to get there, the world must demand change in how decisions that shape the Internet’s future are made. Decisions being made behind closed doors.
We’re asking young people around the world – smart passionate people who are spearheading online diversity initiatives, using tech for social development, or working to make the Internet more inclusive – to raise their voice and let policy and decision-makers know that when it comes to the policies that shape the Internet their voice counts.
The digital future impacts us all. Open the doors and listen to the diverse voices of people both online and off. Let’s build an Internet that’s for everyone.
Mary Helda Akongo is one of those voices. A recent graduate of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, she believes technology has the power to positively influence the social, political, and economic development of women in Africa. Founder of Roaring Doves, an online and offline peer support community for victims and survivors of gender-based violence, she is also the operations and programs manager for Zimba Women, a Ugandan organization that finds innovative technological solutions to create sustainable futures for African women, as well as an innovation research intern at Katerva, where she works with young people around the world as they use technology to drive social and environmental impact in their communities. In 2017, Mary Helda was awarded the 25 under 25 award by the Internet Society for her exceptional work with Zimba Women, which is using the Internet to create a positive impact on the lives of women in Sub-Saharan Africa.
My life revolves around the Internet. It is something that astonishes me every day. It is that place where I can socialize, be entertained, work, create, share, and get access to information. It opens new doors for my friends, family, and me every day. I would probably be jobless if it wasn’t for the Internet.
I work for an organization called Zimba Women. I stumbled upon their website as I was desperately looking for a job. I say desperately because I had been looking since I completed my Bachelor’s degree at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. But I didn’t want just any job—I wanted to do something that mattered. I sent Zimba Women an email expressing my interest in a volunteering position, and that’s how my journey began.
To me, one of the Internet’s greatest purposes is the role it plays in social and economic development.
The Internet is an essential tool to accelerate business innovations. It provides the much-needed capacity, skills, knowledge, and information for small businesses run by young people to be more productive and competitive. Instead of trying to bring their businesses to the world, the Internet brings a global market to them through a simple click.
The Internet also fosters social change and provides a platform where marginalized groups like women can fight for their rights through sparking conversations that have been ignored for a very long time, like the #MeToo movement. Through Zimba Women, we work with more than 5,000 women in East Africa providing business skills, knowledge, and online mentorship. Our objective is to decrease the digital gender gap so that women can have a better, and fair, opportunity to participate in the development of their communities.
The Internet is an indispensable tool that provides a way for women to access the wider world –a world full of networks, opportunities, communities, health and education information, financial advice, and business skills training. It’s a means for women to seek help when and where they need it, helping to redress gender inequity and foster empowerment. My teammates and I are currently focused on expanding our reach to more women outside East Africa to provide tools and technology platforms, business training, mentorship, access to resources and knowledge and networks to improve the livelihoods for women and girls in underserved communities in Africa.
I recently started working online for Katerva, a U.S. organization that finds, supports and accelerates sustainable innovations from around the world. We work and collaborate from different parts of the world. This couldn’t have been possible without the Internet. It has also simplified my work with Zimba Women and Roaring Doves, an online and offline peer support community for victims and survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) who come together to create awareness about GBV, share their stories, and support each other.
Most of what I do (digital marketing, advocacy, research, writing, training, etc.) is predominantly through using digital platforms. It makes my life so much easier.
When I imagine the digital future, I see a better world. A world where millions of young people, especially from the African continent, can increasingly use the Internet to shape their futures and those of their communities by creating social, political, and economic change. The digital economy and emerging technologies, such as big data and e-commerce, present immense opportunities for young people to have and create jobs. The earning potential is limitless.
But are young people being heard when it comes to shaping the future of the Internet? The Internet is supposed to be for everyone.
More than 64% of people in Africa don’t have Internet access. Barriers like affordability of devices and data, Internet shutdowns, Internet balkanization, digital illiteracy, and double taxations have to be addressed. Finding ways to overcome these barriers is going to take everyone. This is why I believe we need to adopt the multistakeholder approach of Internet Governance where all stakeholders, private and public – and youth, have to be involved in making decisions that are related to the Internet.
We must collaborate. We must listen. We must work together to shape a digital future that will positively benefit everyone. And that’s what I want policy and decision makers to know – young people need to be at the table when decisions are being made. We have to be included in the decision-making processes because these decisions directly affect our lives. It’s only fair that we have a say in our futures. Our voice counts.
Visit #CountMyVoice and help build an Internet that’s for everyone!
Image ©Roopa Gogineni / Panos Pictures