Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon urges girls to embrace science

Dr Karekezi completed high school in 2001 and from 2002, she spent six years in a medical school at then Université Nationale du Rwanda.
Dr Claire Karekezi, Rwanda’s only neurosurgeon. She currently works at Rwanda Military Hospital, Kanombe. Jean de Dieu Nsabimana.

When asked if it was that easy to make a decision of joining the science world, and neurosurgery in particular, Dr Claire Karekezi replied “no”, but she immediately added: “But it was my passion, I knew I wanted to do it”.

The first and only female neurosurgeon in Rwanda, Karekezi called upon young women to step out of fear and take on science. She said the girls can make it with passion and perseverance.

She was speaking on Sunday, at an event to celebrate the role of girls and women in sciences, but also to reflect on what can be done to increase their access and participation in a field known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

“Do not let anybody tell you that it is impossible, you can achieve anything,” she said.

Dr Karekezi completed high school in 2001 and from 2002, she spent six years in a medical school at then Université Nationale du Rwanda.

In 2009, Karekezi worked as a general practitioner for almost a year and a half, before enrolling for her specialisation in neurosurgery in Morocco in 2011, where she stayed until 2016.

“It is six years (at the Rwandan university) plus five years (in Morocco),” she said.

Karekezi also added extra training for almost two years in the United States and Canada in pursuit of her dreams of science.

“It took time, but if you have the passion, and the perseverance to stick around, you make it for sure,” she noted.

To stick around you have to love it, according to the physician, and her journey was not that simple.

 “There were a lot of challenges, when I left Rwanda, I was working as a medical doctor, I was working with people who knew me, and then I had to go to a place I had never been before, it is like starting from zero,” she said.

It required, “getting people to know me, getting people to trust me, even though I had knowledge and skills, I would still feel frightened,” she added.

She hailed role of mentors in the process.

“For anyone in science or not in science, doing what you love is the key, it is the first thing,” she explained.

“I would not say that I had extra strength; I was a black woman and a foreigner in different countries, and I was in the field that was dominated by men, so it was every time challenging, but because I loved it, was eager to be a neurosurgeon, I did not give up, I kept following my dream,” she emphasised.

“I think passion and perseverance is the key, you have to love it to stick around, if you do not love it then, you know, you will not stick around,” she repeated.

Young women have been blamed for being somewhat too lazy to do science, but Karekezi said that it is a story of the past. “The woman of today is courageous, willing to follow their dream,” she said.

The doctor also said that “Girls need help, they need to be pushed, they need to be supported, we need more role models, we need more successful women to reach back to these young women,” she urged.

Women have been greatly contributing to the state development, and Karekezi is optimistic that it is going to be the same in science field in the future.

Teachers, young women talk

Pelagie Safari Uwizera, a teacher at GS Gishore, in Nyakaliro, Rwamagana District, has been teaching mathematics for five years in Senior one, two and three.

She said: “Teaching science for a woman is as normal as it is for men, since we both have the capacity”.

Emmanuel Ncocori, a male physics and mathematics teacher at GS Gishali, in Gishali Sector, noted that many female students fear sciences due to failing to get enough time for it.

“Day scholars tend to fail to get time to revise their subjects, which eventually leads to many of them to fail these subjects,” he said.

He also mentioned challenges of materials in day schools, such as laboratories.

“What make some other girls succeed in sciences is having the mentality that they are not that difficult,” he pointed out.

“Parents should facilitate their daughters to get time to revise science subjects, when day scholars return home from school, they start doing some house work, they need time to revise and to do many exercises,” he mentioned.

 “What a parent can do for their daughters to love sciences is to remind them that they are able and that nobody is better than them. A parent needs to give their daughter enough time to revise; by giving them something like a small timetable of little house chores, as well as more time to study,” said Sylvie Mutegwamaso, a representative of parents at GS Gishali.

Chance Clarisse Umurangwa, 20, student in University of Rwanda’s College of Education, reminded that the first thing holding back girls is “lack of self-confidence; the feeling that they are weaker than their male counterparts.”

“You cannot study without coming across challenges, so, they think that they are not able to do it, but they should know that when you have passion for it, you keep making more efforts,” she said.

Henriette Benimana, 20, another university student studying electronic and mechanical engineering, said girls receive many discouraging messages before joining the engineering field.

Her class of 70 students is only made of seven girls.

“Girls and boys are the same at engineering school, we are at the same knowledge level, and it is not a surprise, there are girls who do better than those boys,” she said, adding that different rallies would help push for more girls participation.

Dr Herine Otieno-Menya, director of Teacher Training Programme (TTP) at African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)-Rwanda, said they brought together girls in lower and upper secondary, university, the female science teachers, aiming for “a sense of inspiration”.

The main part of the day was the mentoring session, where women scientists were sharing their own experiences.

“One of the things we want to emphasise to the girls is that science is not easy, and it does not have to be easy for us to do it. We are emphasising to the girls that you can do mistakes, if you are getting an ‘E’, if you are not getting grade one grade two, that does not mean that you cannot do science,” she said.

Looking at the data between 2013 and 2017, there is some improvements, in chemistry, girls getting top grades has improved to 13 percent, in physics and biology, there has been an improvement of six percent, and maths four, Otieno-Menya revealed.

“There is an improvement, yes, but there is a lot more we can do and it needs all the stakeholders; parents, teachers, government officials and stakeholders like us, working together to make the girls see, understand that they are capable of doing sciences,” she stated.

Recognising that full and equal access to and participation in science by women and girls is vital to sustainable development, on 22 December 2015, the UN General Assembly declared Feb. 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

The celebration for 2019 is under the theme; “Investment in Women in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”.

At present, less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, and according to UNESCO data (2014 - 2016), only around 30 percent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.

Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT, with only 3 percent.

Natural science, mathematics and statistics are at five percent, while engineering, manufacturing and construction fields are participated by only eight percent, according to the United Nations.

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