Considered one of the biggest disruptors of 21st century technology, Blockchain is helping women and girls to earn virtual currency and take control of their lives
When it arrived, Yalda Aminy squeezed the parcel in excitement. This would be the first object that belonged to no one but her.
On its side was the smiling arrow of the Amazon.com logo. Yalda knew there were many boxes in the world like this one, though few found their way to her home city of Herat in Afghanistan, and fewer still came to 16 year-old girls. The parcel contained Yalda’s first laptop. It had cost her US$120 and she had paid for it with her own digital money.
Computer-literate and increasingly fluent in English, Yalda, now 17, uses her device on weekends to write a personal blog. If her posts attract enough clicks, comments, likes or shares, Yalda’s sponsor will work out how much she has earned, then transfer the credit to her online account. This extra curricular work affords Yalda online English courses, gifts for her family, and even enough to put away as savings. Yalda’s high earnings should be impossible in Afghanistan, a country where women can open bank accounts on the condition they first secure their families’ consent. Yet, by being paid in bitcoin, the unregulated digital currency, she is able to become better educated and pass on the same benefits to her siblings.
Bit by bit
The online release of bitcoin in 2009 drew international attention to the possibility of digital currency, but it is the technology afforded by Blockchain that has transformed the potential for its use. Blockchain is a public ledger that verifies and records bitcoin transactions. With each new transaction, a new ‘block’ is added to the chain, adding a new set of recorded activity. Bitcoin still shoulders the reputation of an unstable cryptocurrency controlled by a faceless minority of online merchants, but it is arguably Blockchain that cements its legitimacy.
In some developing countries, bitcoin has been adopted as a tool to circumnavigate state power. This is proving successful for a number of reasons. Bitcoin transactions do not require third party authorisation, are beyond the reach of governments to seize or intercept, and are not taxed. For those it helps, bitcoin is a revolutionary invention with minimal costs attached.
In 2013, before terms such as ‘mining’, ‘hash rate’ and ‘signature’ joined bitcoin in the mainstream, Afghani entrepreneur Roya Mahboob found herself listed among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of that year. Mahboob, 28, is credited with starting the non-profit Digital Citizen Fund (DCF, previously the Women’s Annex Foundation) in 2013, alongside Italian business partner Francesco Rulli (48).
The fund aims to provide girls in underprivileged countries with digital and financial management skills throughout their high school education. Its headquarters in New York are a world apart from its facilities in Afghanistan, where Mahboob received threats from the Taliban telling her to abandon the project. Mahboob’s will endured however, and the DCF continues to receive donations, all of which go towards women’s digital literacy programmes. To date, the fund has trained 7750 girls in Afghanistan, though Mahboob has set a target of training around 5000 young women worldwide in 2017.
A waged skillset
DCF training began with basic IT skills: opening a Word document, navigating the web and completing basic research. Mahboob’s pupils were then encouraged to start a blog that recorded their thoughts, ideas, and opinions, while observing some caution as to how political these could be. Multilingual pupils such as Yalda wrote in English, while others wrote in the regional dialects of Dari or Pashto. Nearly all wrote under a pseudonym. Online, Yalda goes by ‘Marjan’, the name of her four year-old niece.
Blogging is an easy and safe way for the girls to apply their skills and creativity, neither of which is much encouraged outside of class. It is through blogging that the girls also became financially aware, after they were introduced to the system that rated their posts before calculating how much each of them had earned. This simultaneous discovery of technology and financial empowerment is a potent combination, which Mahboob says gives the young women their first taste of independence.
“In a lot of developing countries, not just Afghanistan, when females make money, they either have to spend that money, or they are forced to give that money to their family, and they don’t have any money to save. Now, with Blockchain and Bitcoin, they can save their money and no one necessarily knows that they have it,” she says.
Bitcoin was not an easy concept for the pupils to comprehend at first, according to Mahboob. Before learning how digital currency actually worked, DCF would convert the girls’ bitcoin earnings into physical Afghani cash. This quickly became unsustainable, not least because pupils risked having the cash confiscated at home by an older relative. The only way to transfer the credit meanwhile was through a lengthy traditional Arabic system, known as Hawala. Francesco Rulli later adapted DCF’s system to allocate Blockchain accounts to each of the pupils, who could then browse and purchase goods through mainstream online platforms such Amazon and PayPal.
“They were used to having cash in their hands, so we had to convince them to use the bitcoins and then we provided the facilities for them to buy books and other equipment online,” Mahboob says.
Yalda makes modest though regular financial contributions to her family’s household, buying things for her brother and sister on months when her earnings are especially good. She recounts the occasions when she has returned home from class to surprise her two siblings.
“I bought a beautiful bag for my sister to keep her dolls in, and for my younger brother, I got a mathematics kit for him to take to school. When I showed them these gifts, they were so happy, my brother especially,” she says.
Mahboob has adapted her lessons to teach girls more about the intricacies of bitcoin and Blockchain. The fluctuation in bitcoin’s value meanwhile continues to transfix Yalda. As of September 2016, bitcoin stands at around US$608.66, almost six times the value at which she first earned enough to buy her laptop.
Mahboob says the DCF does not teach girls to speculate on the price of assets, though her students are quick to pick up on the behavioural economics of the market. She says the DCF exists principally to make girls realise the power of technology to enhance their lives as women in society. Many of the pupils use the DCF’s facilities to learn basic economics they can later apply at home. However, Mahboob believes this already marks a victory for Afghani women who ordinarily would not even be taught simple budgeting techniques.
“If [girls] know about computers and about finance, they can be better mothers, better employees and seek better employment opportunities,” she says. “Most women in Afghanistan have access to cell phones, but still very few understand or know how to use Blockchain. If they are educated in how to use it, then they can save their money and they can use that money any way they want.”
Debate over whether bitcoin will ever rival regulated coinage is giving way to that of how Blockchain could subvert the relationship between data security and personal finance. This is in part due to the ability of Blockchain to encrypt ‘smart contracts’ that track everything from data, to bulk commodities such as rice, to rare diamonds. Consumers could, for instance, benefit from smart contracts that embed supply chain timelines in the barcodes of supermarket products, allowing them to monitor sustainable sourcing.
Start Network, an international NGO network that works
with donors to tackle global humanitarian crises, is an organisation exploring the use of Aidcoin, a digital currency converted from original donations that can quickly target areas of need at the point of emergency. In this case, a smart contract could allow each unit of Aidcoin to be tracked from the moment it enters a fund, to the moment it leaves, ensuring full accountability while drastically reducing response times to humanitarian aid.
Jonathan Chester, founder and president of digital payroll service Bitwage, believes Blockchain is in many ways a cure for the bureaucratic ills of banking infrastructure. He says bitcoin challenges the idea that people need an authority to hold their financial assets, let alone enshrine currency with sovereign value.
“The whole idea of the Blockchain is to remove intermediaries from a process. By doing so, you can do things like have faster, cheaper payments. As a result, what’s happening is that instead of the bank being the intermediary, the Blockchain is actually the intermediary,” he says.
“If you have a culture in the Middle East where women are not allowed to be out by themselves or purchase things by themselves, then you essentially provide these women with the ability to receive their wages and hold their funds and use it themselves, for themselves. I believe it is bitcoin that enables that.”
Rulli shares this belief, and thinks Blockchain should be regarded as a tool for development in underprivileged countries worldwide. “I do believe the concept of a trust-less technology allows people to surpass the hurdles inherited by ancient traditions, establishment and legacy, creating a new platform where they can negotiate and prosper with new ideas and values,” he comments.
Keep the change
Mahboob’s next step is to take the success of DCF in Afghanistan to other parts of the world where women’s access to technology and economic awareness are limited by patriarchal norms. The DCF is starting a new partnership with NGOs in Mexico that sets out to teach coding skills to around 500 female students. Consistently, it is this nexus of technology and finance that Mahboob says is allowing individuals to become free agents in the 21st century, irrespective of gender, race or nationality.
“As far as empowerment goes, Blockchain will be very useful in developing countries, because many of these people don’t have access to a bank account, or don’t trust a bank.” Some of Yalda’s peers have been forced to withdraw from Mahboob’s classes, a fact sufficiently recurrent to engender both her gratitude and anger.
“This is a man’s society. Women and girls simply cannot work, learn, or be out of the home. Leaving home is a security problem for women, but the limitations on women are always around the home,” she says.
Yet, Mahboob’s legacy has left Yalda with the prospect of a different future, one in which she sees herself financing a degree in computer science before becoming a programmer or web designer. Blockchain is helping to redefine the concept of financial access for people who are used to being ignored or have been left unbanked. And, in a world where interconnectedness opens up new opportunities, digital access and education is a crucial step forwards. Yalda knows it well.
“I just hope all girls can one day come to school and learn how to use this technology and connect with people, really just so they can introduce themselves to the real world.”