Coping with COVID: Helping Disadvantaged Local Women Through Tough Times

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset in use during PONToon project. Image credit, PONToon.

Large numbers of women in the UK lack the practical skills that allow them to earn a living in the modern, digital economy. Headquartered at the University of Portsmouth, PONToon (Partnership Opportunities using New Technologies fostering sOcial and ecOnomic inclusioN) is an Interreg 5a project, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, which works closely with charities, NGOs, businesses, government agencies and educational institutions to boost the knowledge, employability, self-esteem and confidence of disadvantaged women in Britain and France. S&C Founding Editor Tom Sykes talks to PONToon’s coordinator, Chinasa Ezugha, about the challenges – and opportunities – facing the project in the COVID-19 era. 

Tom Sykes: When the lockdown began a few weeks ago, what immediate difficulties did PONToon encounter and how have you dealt with them?

Chinasa Ezugha: We’re looking at the situation as both a challenge and an opportunity. Our women beneficiaries are at the heart of this project and we will continue helping them as best we can. So far, we have been able to provide two of our ambassadors, who joined the project as beneficiaries, with the technology they need to continue working remotely. We’ve also been updating our website with resources that point people towards things like mental health support, free software alternatives and advice on coping with working from home.

Before the lockdown, we were delivering numerous workshops for women at different levels with different needs. We had to cancel these along with an event in partnership with The Girls’ Network connecting young, disadvantaged women from Portsmouth and across Hampshire with suitable mentors. We also had to postpone a symposium focused on the dissemination of PONToon to an international audience, exploring best practice and how the project could be replicated or serve as a toolkit for other organisations around the world looking to upskill women.

COVID-19 has also made us reflect on how we work and communicate in these tough times. From when we started in 2017 we’ve emphasised the need for all people – women as well as men and children – to learn digital skills. This has a new relevance now millions of people are at home having to work online. We’ve been dealing with the question of what does it mean to have digital skills for a while and now people all over the globe are figuring out how to use tech platforms in not only their work but to maintain relationships, stay in touch with family members and so on.

On PONToon we’re developing innovative apps such as Job Map and Community Map which will help women find employment without having to leave their homes. This is critical at a time when people can’t go outside and physically seek out work.

Tragically, the lockdown has endangered women who were already vulnerable. There’s been a spike in domestic violence, for example. Do you have specific concerns about the vulnerable women PONToon works with?

A lot of our women are, if you like, hard to reach. They are not always captured in the government data due to being marginalised. Some have had good careers in the past and should be high achievers now, but aren’t because of particular vulnerabilities.

Loneliness and lack of social contact is a big worry for us. Before the pandemic, PONToon led a community of learners who had shared values, interests and goals. That sense of community combatted isolation. But it’s no longer there and that’s a shame.

We’ve also worked with people with substance misuse problems, for whom our project has been a source of motivation and routine. Continuing to train and support these people remotely has limitations and the lack of face-to-face contact isn’t ideal for people in their situations.

My other fear is that, during this lockdown, some women will feel increasingly under pressure in their homes. They’ll be spending much more time than usual with partners who may be used to having their own way – and arguments will happen. And of course now there’s no option of getting out of the house if the situation reaches boiling point.

Are there many women involved in PONToon who don’t have internet access?

Some of the women refugees and asylum seekers have children who live abroad, in faraway countries. Our workshops might have been their only chance of interacting with others from the same parts of the world and who speak the same language. Now, staying in touch virtually with these same people or, more importantly, with their friends and family abroad is impossible without access to computers and the internet. There’s an assumption that everyone is online these days, but that isn’t true. Even if one of our women has a smartphone they may not be able to afford to buy data or pay for wi-fi in their home. It may be a choice between that and feeding their family. If they are living in temporary accommodation, they may have little or no internet access. If they were dependent on public wi-fi spots before, this is obviously not an option now.

Having been involved with the project and been digitally upskilled, are the women who do have home internet access better equipped to deal with the lockdown?

This goes back to the idea of knowledge transfer. Think of all the mothers in Britain who are having to home-school their children right now. Many aren’t aware of the digital resources available. However, PONToon mothers have learned photography, blogging, web design, MS Word and a lot else. It has empowered them to educate their kids in this new environment.

PONToon has transferred this knowledge to the women and, in turn, they are now transferring the knowledge to their children. In fact, kids often grasp this stuff better than adults! But there still has to be an element of parental leadership to ensure that kids avoid online dangers. PONToon’s workshops have focused a great deal on online safety. This is especially urgent now during a crisis in which so many families are stuck at home using the internet.


Image courtesy of the PONToon project.

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