Girls at the Lamwo Kuc Ki Gen High School, northern Uganda. Photograph courtesy of Peas
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The learning curve

In 2016, commercial-scale oil production will begin in Uganda. But with only a quarter of all its children in secondary school, how can more of the people – especially girls – benefit from its new wealth?

“John-Mary has always had dreams,” says Justine Nantengo of her son, who stands smart and shy in his crisp blue shirt on the dirt floor of their tiny mud-brick home. In this district, on the western edges of Kampala, where the urban sprawl gives way to green and where tarmacked roads dwindle to rutted, rust-red tracks, if you don’t have dreams you have nothing.

For a long time John-Mary dreamed of finishing secondary school, but the few local schools were too expensive for his single mother, supporting five children on a plantation worker’s salary. Then in 2008 Onwards and Upwards opened, a secondary school run by Peas – Promoting Equality in African Schools, a social enterprise and charity hybrid. School fees were only 52,000 Ugandan shillings (£12) a term, less than half the price of the average private school and USh19,000 (£5) lower than fees at the supposedly free government schools.

John-Mary, who was then 19, enrolled, graduated with the third-highest grades in the district and is now funding the cost of studying for a degree in education at Makerere University in Kampala by teaching at Onwards and Upwards. He hopes to teach full-time, to fund his younger siblings through school, perhaps, one day, rebuild the family’s decrepit home and allow his mother to retire.

Like many countries across Africa, Uganda has made considerable progress in increasing primary-school enrolment rates. Under the UN Millennium Development Goals introduced in 2000, national governments pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Across sub-Saharan Africa, this led to an increase in net primary-school enrolment rates from 18 per cent in 1999 to 76 per cent in 2009.

The Ugandan government, led by Yoweri Museveni, introduced universal primary education in 1997, three years before the UN pledge. According to Ugandan government statistics, net enrolment rates rose from 57 per cent to 85 per cent in 1997 alone, and today just over 90 per cent of children are enrolled.

But this created a second problem, says Ismael Mulindwa, head of policy and regulations at the Ugandan ministry of education. “In the space of one or two years, the number of children in primary school shot up from about two million to seven million [Uganda has a population of 34.5 million]. When these children reached their final year of primary, another question came in: where do they go now?”

Uganda took an unusual step. In 2007, it became one of the first African countries to set a goal of universal secondary education, but the government accepted that it lacked the capacity to implement the programme directly. “At that point, we had around 800 government secondary schools, which could not take up that big number of school leavers. So we now thought of forging a partnership with private schools, to help absorb these numbers,” Mulindwa told me. The government encouraged private schools to step in by offering schools participating in the programme an annual grant of USh141,000 (£35) per pupil. In exchange for accepting the government subsidy, the participating schools agree not to charge tuition fees – but most schools get around this by imposing inflated top-up charges for lunch, uniforms and books instead.

The policy has yielded mixed results: enrolment has improved, but the quality of schooling is varied and often bad. Private providers can be costly and schools have been closed down suddenly when profits dried up. Large parts of the population are still not served by any secondary schools.

Peas, however, is pioneering a new model to provide access to affordable but high-quality secondary education in those areas where the demand is greatest. The capital and start-up costs for each Peas school are raised in the UK, but the organisation doesn’t want its schools to remain dependent on unsustainable foreign donations. A combination of the annual subsidy from the Ugandan government, low fees to cover lunch costs and an income-generating activity – often a farm attached to the school – aims to make every Peas school financially independent.

“Peas is run as a social enterprise,” says John Rendel, the organisation’s chief executive, “so the capital that people invest into the launch of each school sets up a business, which will not just support one child through school, but will support that child, then their brother, their sister, and so on, ad infinitum.”

There are now 13 Peas-run schools in Uganda as well as one pilot project in Zambia, and it is already one of the largest secondary school networks in Africa. It hopes to build 100 schools in Uganda by 2017, creating 100,000 low-cost secondary school places.

The task is huge. In Uganda only one in four children of secondary school age is in school. For a boy such as John-Mary, to miss out on secondary school is to be consigned to a life of poverty in a country where 38 per cent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day. For a girl, the consequences can be even worse.

Of Justine’s five children, only Mary hasn’t completed primary school – as a girl, she couldn’t contribute to her fees by making bricks. Mary Nantume married at 15. She now sits in one corner of the room with a polite but dazed smile and lets Justine and John-Mary speak for her. She has recently left her husband, returning home to live with Justine. Under Baganda custom, her husband will retain full custody of their children, aged three, five and seven.

“Men here are not easy,” John-Mary explains. “When you’re not educated, they treat marriage as employment and when you are a poor girl, they will mistreat you.”

Marriage is often one of the very few options open to an uneducated girl living in poverty. Because it is customary to receive a dowry, marrying a daughter early can be an attractive proposition for parents, too.

Around Kampala are several large, shiny billboards of a suited man punching a well-dressed woman, with the headline “Is this a fair fight?”. Domestic violence is common and even widely accepted in many Ugandan communities – and these posters are of little value if you can’t read. Nor is it easy, in any case, to leave an abusive relationship if you don’t have independent means. In many parts of Uganda, once a dowry has been exchanged, the husband will expect a “refund” should his wife leave. Whether the dowry was paid in money that has been spent, or on animals that have been reared and resold, this is seldom possible, leaving women trapped in unhappy marriages.

Education is not an instant cure to gender inequality, but the statistics for the benefits are unambiguous: an educated girl is seven times less likely to become HIV-positive, her children are twice as likely to live beyond the age of five and each year of secondary school can add between 15 and 25 per cent to her salary.

Onwards and Upwards has been especially successful in getting girls into school. Girls make up 56 per cent of pupils, and almost twothirds of them are boarders. “I had a parent here last week who had lots of children and has to choose which ones he will support through school this year,” the director of the Onwards and Upwards school, Moses Mwanje, told me.

“I asked him, ‘What criteria are you using?’ And he said he wanted to educate those that are most vulnerable first, so he chose his girls.”

Pregnant pause

Travel about 250 kilometres west of Kampala and you reach the trading village of Kigorobya. The whole village amounts to little more than a handful of wooden shacks and bare shops hugging close to the earth road, where children play in the dirt while their mothers do household chores. In this small and deprived outpost, Green Shoots, another Peas school, is faced with a very big problem.

Since it launched in 2010, 45 of the Green Shoots pupils have dropped out of school after falling pregnant. Six have since returned. Teen - age pregnancy rates in Kigorobya are exceptionally high, the result of a combination of poverty and a quirk of local marriage customs. “In most parts of Uganda, if a man gets a girl pregnant he will have to pay a bride price to her family,” says Christine Apiot, Peas’s senior director of education. “But around Kigorobya, there is no dowry system, so when a man here gets a girl pregnant, he doesn’t have to pay.”

Scovia Bamukuhda is one of only two girls in the final year at Green Shoots, and she believes that poverty has driven many of her peers to have children. “Maybe it is a problem of poverty, because they try to get some money. Now if they get money, they get the money through having sex,” she explains.

Stellah Kimuli, two years Scovia’s junior and quietly confident, says: “Another problem is maybe those husbands have money and will pay for them so they can go to school, and then they are getting pregnant.” It is hard to intervene because girls are often secretive about their sources of support. “You cannot know that there is someone who is paying for them,” Stellah says. “She just plays with you, socializes with you, but she doesn’t tell you. You only realize when the girl is already pregnant.”

Stellah was orphaned at nine, and now her uncle pays her boarding fees. She says she has resisted pressure to get married because she is “patient”. Although she is not sure if her uncle will pay for further studies, she wants to become a nurse, and believes the long-term benefits of education will outweigh the short-term benefits of marriage. “I am not even willing to get married. Because I can see I’m a poor girl and if I go and get married right now it’s not easy. It’s like this: as I still have a chance to be helped, let me make the most of that chance.”

To encourage more pupils to follow Scovia’s and Stellah’s lead, the school regularly invites successful women to speak to the girls, and it has arranged for them to receive free counselling and HIV tests at a local health clinic. It has launched an outreach campaign to convince parents to keep their girls in school. According to the headteacher, Simon Okwera, the outreach campaign has led to a fall in the number of girls dropping out because of pregnancy as well as an increase in the number of female boarders.

One of the community’s most vocal and longstanding advocates for girls’ education is Sarah Ntiro, Uganda’s first female university graduate, who was sponsored by the British government to study at Oxford from 1951-54. She was born in Hoima, a city a few kilometres away from Kigorobya, and still lives there today, in a neat concrete house on the edge of town.

“My mother went to school, I went to school, my children and nephews and nieces have gone to university, my grandchildren are graduates and there are people unable to read and write. In 2012. It’s shocking,” she says. “It isn’t that these people don’t see the value of education – they are not even aware that there’s a need. If they were aware they’d fear being left behind, and these people don’t want to be left behind.”

Hoima is poised on the edge of change. In 2016, commercial production is due to start at Uganda’s first oilfield, in the nearby Albertine Rift basin. There are hints of how oil money might transform the region: there’s an incongruous, shopping-mall-shaped hole in Hoima’s clapped-out downtown and, closer to Lake Albert, the occasional oil company compound stands out amid the mud-and-thatch huts. Samuel Nyendwoha, who farms tobacco here and leads the Green Shoots parent-teacher association, says local people grumble that oil companies are bringing in workers from Kampala and further afield. Uneducated locals can at best hope for casual manual labour.

In this sense, Hoima provides an example of a process that is repeating itself across Uganda, and indeed Africa. Foreign investment on the continent may be one route to more rapid economic growth, but although this will enrich a small, educated elite, the swaths of the population that lack the skills to participate in foreigninvestment- driven business will experience little improvement in their wages or standard of living. If, or when, foreign investment transforms Uganda, the uneducated will, in Sarah Ntiro’s words, be “left behind”.

Uganda cannot attain sustainable and inclusive growth if only a quarter of its children enroll in secondary school. “Education is our only foundation, our only future,” Justine Nantengo says. She could be talking about much more than her family of six and their battered mudbrick home on the fringes of Kampala.

Peas’s “Back to School” appeal aims to change the lives of over 16,000 children in Uganda by ensuring that they have a quality secondary school education over the next three years. Until 13 December, the British government will match all public donations to “Back to School” pound for pound. More details at: peas.org.uk

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.