Breaking the barriers of girls’ participation in science

Mentors should empower girls so that they do not shy away from STEM fields. / Net photo

Josephine Mukarukundo, a mathematics and physics teacher was recognised early this week as a ‘champion of science’ for her tangible contributions to the advancement of women in science, in Rwanda.

This happened during the celebration of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, marked February 11 ever year, with a focus on ‘investing in women and girls in science for inclusive green growth’.

It was organised by RAWISE, in collaboration with NCST (National Council for Science and Technology), CNRU (Rwanda national commission for UNESCO) and other partners.

RAWISE is an association of Rwandan women who aim to promote female participation in science, technology, engineering and decision-making processes. 

Mukarukundo, a mother of two, has been teaching physics and mathematics for the last 16 years in different schools based in Ruhango District, where she hails from.

The 45-year-old started teaching in 1997, during this time, as a woman, teaching subjects that were believed to be for men came with challenges, she says.

“The challenges ranged from being rebuked, discouraged to fear of not getting a husband as such fields were ‘meant to be tough’.  Being there as a woman, it meant you were also tough and no man would dare approach you,” she says.

However, she says because it was an opportunity for her, she turned a deaf ear and continued doing what she enjoyed.

Mukarukundo has been able to make an impact on her students, especially young girls who are inspired by her courage and determination.

Minister of Environment, Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, said basing on the theme of the day, that it is encouraging as building a green and circular economy is a key priority for Rwanda.

She said it is an opportunity for the country to find new ways to increase the number of women in STEM roles across academia, the private sector and civil society and build on the incredible progress achieved in recent years.

“For far too long, women and girls have been held back from achieving their full potential and from playing an equal role in global scientific advancement,” she says.

She added that this can be attributed in part to outdated and sexist ideas about the contribution women can make to sciences.

In the past, women were considered unfit for such roles and actively discouraged from pursuing STEM education and careers. While many of these stereotypes are quickly being replaced with a healthier understanding of women’s’ capabilities, she said this kind of thinking continues to impact participation rates.

According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), fewer than 30 per cent of researchers are women and only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.

Around the world, women make up only three per cent of enrolment in ICT, five per cent in the natural sciences, mathematics and statistics and just eight per cent in engineering, manufacturing and construction. Clearly we have a long way to go to reach gender equality in STEM.

Fortunately, a number of women from all disciplines, including Africa, have become role models for girls around the world. From Nobel Prize winners and astronauts to biochemists and conservationists, women have blazed a trail, which the Minister said as a country, now has the opportunity to follow.

Why it’s important for women to be part of building a ‘green Rwanda’

In almost all circumstances, women are more affected by environmental problems than men.

Whether it is pollution from cooking with wood or charcoal, or dealing with crop failure from climate change related flooding or droughts, women are bearing the brunt of climate change.

For this reason, the Minister said it’s essential for women and girls to be part of solving these challenges. Because they are more affected, and they know just how critical it is to overcome these issues and build a green and prosperous future.

According to WHO, 11 million premature deaths are caused by air pollution around the world.

This can only happen if use of wood and charcoal use are rapidly reduced.

“I call on all women scientists in Rwanda to be the flag bearers of the solutions to this challenge,” she noted.

Equality in era of digitalisation for sustainable development 

The National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) is assigned with a mandate of managing the National Research and Innovation Fund (NRIF). 

NRIF is envisaged to be a major vehicle through which the Government of Rwanda provides research and innovation funding that is aimed at stimulating societal and economic growth in accordance with the national development agenda. 

In funding research, Sano Anselme, under community outreach at NCST, says it encourages the inclusion of women researchers in various funding instruments.

For instance, he says, in the collaborative grant, one of the key evaluation criteria is the team must have at least 25 per cent of female researchers.

As far as supporting women in science is concerned, he says NCST has created various funding instruments for women in science, such as the “Women in Science Grant” to support various women’s initiatives.

In addition to these instruments, NCST also supports women associations like RAWISE, and conferences involving women in science.

Among other initiatives, every year, NCST in collaboration with its partners organises a science week which futures various initiatives.

Among those, the “Women in Science Breakfast” organised to recognise Rwandan women who excelled in STEM.

“During this event, women who excel in science are honoured. Also, there is recognition for secondary school girls who pass essay competitions,” he says.

At NCST, statistics related to the number of girls in science-related fields are available, and they will soon be published in the R&D survey report.

Alice Ikuzwe from RAWISE says they mentor and empower high school students to understand STEM fields and what they aspire. 

“Most of the young girls and women are guided on the courses they want to pursue, and how to go about them, which makes it easy for them to excel in whatever science course they have chosen,” she says.

She adds that they also create a hub for scientists to negotiate, network and get access to what women are doing.

Sandrine Ishimwe from VVOB, an NGO that works with schools with the aim of improving learning outcome through reduction of gender gaps, says they believe if both men and women are included, then sustainable development can be easily attained.

She says they do this by improving leadership and teachers’ support.

“We train different STEM teachers across the country in 17 districts. We believe they are influencers, just like parents, their mindset can control if girls continue with STEM or not,” she says. 

The organisation also focuses on which methodology teachers use to make their lesson plans, and how they deliver the lessons within the classroom — as well as how they involve boys and girls in the whole process of learning.

Besides, VVOB offers training courses to teachers in education mentorship so that they can pass it on to their learners. The aim is to ensure that STEM teachers are competent enough to impact their learners in a positive way.

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