When teams of students solve problems with technology, those solutions come directly from their unique experiences. Young, inventive thinking moves faster and more efficiently through technology, and for years, the Imagine Cup has given an increasingly globally connected youth the opportunity to improve the world with its best ideas. Developments like water treatment, cleaner energy and political activism take on a new light when driven by fresh takes on regional and cultural issues.

The Cup's years of student technology competitions have amplified voices that might have otherwise gone unheard, and increasingly, that voice has been female. Women's participation in the Imagine Cup grew to 20% of participants in 2012, and Microsoft, alongside UN Women, are keen on seeing that percentage rise. Together we are putting a call out to Imagine Cup contestants to level the gender playing field across the world. Perhaps as importantly, the initiative is anchored by a simple idea: more technology for women, driven by their unique experiences and needs, will result in more technology by women.

The Women's Empowerment Award, debuting at this year's Imagine Cup, is open to all World Finals projects, whether developed by men or women, so long as they meet a specific criteria: that they address critical women's issues. UN Women, Microsoft, and a panel of esteemed experts will evaluate all submissions before awarding a first prize of $12,000 and a second prize of $8,000.

The range of eligible projects for the award may seem quite vast, but so is gender equality as a cross-cutting, worldwide issue. As the leading  UN organization dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, UN Women globally supports efforts to end violence against women and girls, ensure their central involvement in peace building, advance women’s political participation and leadership, and increase their economic empowerment. “While women constitute over half of humanity, they are far from enjoying equal rights, equal opportunities and equal participation and leadership with men,” said former UN Women Under-Secretary General and Executive Director Michelle Bachelet in Denmark this February. “To achieve success in a new global development agenda, we need a unifying development goal on gender equality as a cross-cutting priority.”

That “unifying” goal and rallying cry for action is echoed in UN Women's inspiring theme song, “One Woman,” produced in partnership with Microsoft.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) —particularly in the hands of young thinkers and student teams—are poised to make a huge and rapid impact to fulfill those goals. Efficient, cost-effective innovations will put more tools in the hands of women who need them the most. Data-driven solutions can generate evidence and foster feedback, crucial to both improve the tools given to women and advocate for their usefulness And those innovations could also inspire rapid change in the conversations the world has about some of the world's poorest, most invisible victims of violence and human rights atrocities.

In addressing widespread violence against women, quicker access to legal, social, medical and financial services can make all of the difference. Consider the extreme case of acid throwing, a practice that largely affects women and is still all-too-common, including countries that have laws against such crimes. The Acid Survivors Trust International, with support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, works tirelessly to support victims, seek justice and implement measures to prevent more tragic crimes.

On the surface, any technology that can address the basic care of something as debilitating as an acid attack—reducing treatment times by even minutes—would be beneficial, but the possibilities do not end there. Imagine the impact of an Imagine Cup project that increased mobilization against  the heinous practice, connected survivors in need of support, or built real-time maps of instances of violence, complete with links to services. Those are only a few examples of how low-cost technology could be used on behalf of female victims, whether distributed by mobile phone or other mechanisms.

The needs and possibilities only grow when addressing the complex layers that accompany violent and sexual assaults against women. How can technology-driven solutions also maximize privacy—so that victims can mask their distress signals and hide sensitive SMS messages or applications? Or seek information or file reports without being discovered? Those needs—and more—are, as of yet, under-served by modern technology, and they're only the first steps to help ensure victims have enough resources to combat perpetrated violence. These capabilities would prove just as useful in conflict zones, where civilians suffer as many as 90% of all casualties—and largely women and children. Refugees in need of things like new shelter, rape kits and protection from armed militias operate at a disadvantage of fear—which makes simple, low-cost, information-loaded solutions all the more desirable around the world.

Outside of conflict zones, the road to greater female empowerment across the globe has its own unique challenges. This can also include countries whose laws that directly affect women have lagged in either implementation or advocacy. In the spring of 2012, for instance, the Moroccan government granted equal land ownership rights to men and women—a ruling that has the potential to achieve greater success when more women are informed and equipped with the ability to act on the ruling.

The time is right for students to develop information-sharing technology, tailored specifically to empower women and girls.. Student teams from around the world know the specific challenges faced by women in their countries—limits in everything from land ownership to legislative eligibility. These students are poised to deliver technologies that connect advocates at a grassroots level or empower entrepreneurs to assert themselves in local and global marketplaces. It is their time to fill these gaps in access, for women—let alone the other inequalities, still untold, that their Imagine Cup solutions could publicize and solve.

This year's Women's Empowerment Award, to be awarded on July 11th  in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals, furthers the mission of the UN Women and Microsoft partnership to use technologies to help empower women around the world. Solutions that combat violence, level the political playing field and improve women's health won't just better the lives of women and society as a whole; they will also inspire a new generation of women who understand the value of Science and Technology and know how to use these areas of practice to become entrepreneurs, researchers, leaders,  and more—to continue UN Women's cause of gender equality. 

Hugh Samuels
Imagine Cup Correspondent