There were thunderstorms. There was a strike. And there was the hackathon to end violence against women -- all happening on the same day in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Due to the strike, vehicles were not allowed on the road so some of the participants woke up at 5 a.m. to walk more than eight miles to get to the Trade Tower Business Center, Thapathali-- the site of the hackathon where contestants vied to come up with mobile applications to address violence against women.
At 9 a.m. on June 16, a rainy Sunday, Binisha Shrestha, a 23-year-old computer engineering student and a hacker, was working aggressively with her four teammates to create a mobile application with the potential to help women.
Shrestha and 80 other young techies and civil society representatives came together for the first time to create mobile applications to end gender-based violence as part of a hackathon sponsored by the World Bank.
Patriarchy is a deeply rooted problem in Nepal. As someone who grew up there, I know of many instances in which women faced violence and discrimination. One-third of married women have experienced some form of emotional, physical, or sexual violence from their spouse in their marital relationship.
The hackathon aimed to address that problem. Shrestha and her team worked on a prototype for an Android app called Self Help. "It will allow users to send SMS (text messages) and geo-locations to police, trusted relatives, and friends when one is in danger with just one click," said Shrestha, with excitement and confidence in her voice.
I can relate to her enthusiasm. There are good reasons to be optimistic about Nepal's future, including the future of Nepalese women, despite the many challenges the country and its people face today.
Nepal is a landlocked country in South Asia that is still recovering from a decade-long civil war. It ranks 157th out of 187 countries in terms of human development, according to the UNDP's 2013 Human Development Index Report. But the country is not a lost cause. Nepal has not only reached the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on reducing maternal mortality but it is also on track to achieve gender equality in education. Educating girls will not only help end poverty but also help a historically patriarchal nation become a more equal, open-minded, and fair society.
The key to Nepal's transformation is its youth, who are using technology to shape their own futures and that of their country. Just eight years ago, only 0.4% of the country's population used the Internet. Today, one in every four Nepalis has access to the Web, and some of them are using it to address societal challenges. Shrestha started to learn coding about three years ago. "Coding is something that I love to do," she said.
From alert systems to reporting abuse and seeking care, hackers wearing black T-shirts worked tirelessly on 17 projects geared toward helping women and girls. "People can also share their successful stories of overcoming violence," Shrestha added.
The idea of this hackathon emerged from a similar event that was organized at the end of January 2013 to tackle domestic violence in Central America. When World Bank South Asia asked: "What will it take to end gender-based violence in Nepal" - a question that received more than 1,200 entries in response. Entries were submitted through text messages, tweets, and emails. "This showed us that there is a thirst among youth in South Asia region to engage on the issue of violence and the potential to use technology," said Luiza Nora, social development specialist for the South Asia region at the World Bank.
At the end of the day, hackers presented their projects to the jury. Isabel Guerrerro, then vice president of the South Asia region of the World Bank, said the Bank will work to make these ideas a reality. Three projects were announced as winners, including Shrestha's.
Shrestha and her team plan to launch a working version of their app this month. "We did it and our hard work paid off," she said. "It gave me encouragement to do more, to learn more."
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