How Rwandan women in science are empowering girls

RAWISE members during the just-concluded Next Einstein Forum 2018 in Kigali. Courtesy photos

Last week, Rwanda Association of Women in Science and Engineering (RAWISE) was officially launched.

RAWISE was first established in December 2015 by a group of Rwandan female engineers and scientists with the view to help encourage more Rwandan women to pick interest in and join science and engineering fields.

Alice Ikuzwe is the brain behind RAWISE. She is currently pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at University of Pretoria, South Africa.

She says she first conceived the idea to form an association that would bring together Rwandan female scientists back in November 2015 when she attended the annual South African Young Scientists Conference in Johannesburg.  

“I was representing University of Pretoria and I happened to meet other Rwandans who were representing other universities. I then realised that other countries, especially in East Africa, were represented, but Rwanda was not. I wondered whether it was because Rwandans were not informed, or merely not interested in such opportunities,” she says.

This prompted her to inquire if there were any organisations that brought Rwandan female scientists together and if her compatriots in similar fields actually knew of such conferences.

To her dismay, she found out that Rwandan female scientists were many but often absent from such forums.

She immediately contacted friends and shared her idea with them, and they started with only eight members. She left shortly after but when she returned for holiday later, she approached University of Rwanda and invited other people to join.

“My idea was to increase the visibility of women in sciences and when we started, our first target was to approach the young girls in secondary schools, talk to them and encourage them,” she says.

Partnering with OWSD

This, she adds, is because there are so many misconceptions going on about girls pursuing sciences.

“Many think that pursuing sciences is a waste of time as it requires a number of years to complete studies, and also that there are no available jobs for such courses. For example, studying mechanical engineering, one might think that they will end up working in a garage.

“Secondly, some people are discouraged by society or their families who think that certain subjects are meant for men. Also, there are many young girls out there who want to do sciences but do not know of any role models who have succeeded in these careers. These are some of the issues we want to fight to put an end to,” Ikuzwe says.

The organisation also hosts the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) Rwanda Chapter established to provide networking and information-sharing between institutions and individuals.

OSWD aims at uniting eminent women scientists from the developing and developed worlds with the objective of strengthening their role in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership.

Ikuzwe is a member of OWSD. She played a leading role in getting the organisation to establish a Rwandan chapter after she attended an OWSD conference in Kuwait along with two other Rwandans.

“There were hundreds of other nationals but OWSD had 15 other Rwandan fellows. I approached them and inquired about the OWSD National Chapter. We brought five more members and applied for a national chapter,” she says.

OWSD-Rwanda Chapter members double as members of RAWISE, which currently has 52 members.

Ikuzwe believes that the national chapter will help connect Rwandan women in science network with other international organisations for women and scholarships for further studies.

Reaching out to young girls

“It is an opportunity for Rwandan women scientists to go abroad and be exposed and learn how other women are working and are being empowered,” Ikuzwe says.

The president of OWSD-Rwanda Chapter, Didacienne Mukanyiligira, says the partnership is necessary, especially because both organisations share the same objectives.

“Science and technology have always been some of the strongest pillars of development yet women are afraid to pursue science subjects. As women who are already in this field, our role is to motivate them,” she says.

As a lecturer in the Department of Computer and Software Engineering at University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology, Mukanyiligira says that she has experienced the gap between girls and boys in sciences.

“While doing practicals, the boys are usually quick and eager to learn new things while the girls are usually laid back. We need to motivate young girls into doing STEM so they are able to participate in the decision-making processes of the country.”

Pascasie Nyirahabimana notes that RAWISE’s activities aim at increasing the number of Rwandan women in STEM fields. They include outreach programmes like visiting high schools around the country for full or half-day science talks and discussions about the application of the different STEM subjects, scholarship opportunities for tertiary education and career prospects.

RAWISE also conducts mentoring programmes where they “match young women to RAWISE members who have more experience in their fields.” 

“We encourage regular contact that is either face-to-face, through a phone call or email and have a research project aiming at evaluating young girls’ perspective of STEM subjects in school. This project will require intense field work in collecting the data from a sample of high schools countrywide,” says Nyirahabimana.

So far, four schools from different parts of the country have benefited from the outreach programmes and this, Ikuzwe explains, enables members to learn and experience first-hand the challenges that young girls in school face.

Involving men

“Recently during our outreach programmes at a secondary school, a young boy revealed how he feels like a coward when he is beaten in class by a girl. We were disheartened by this and we feel that it is our duty to also educate boys that girls are also capable, and help them understand what we are advocating for.

“We also realised that we do not have the database for women in science and so we want to do research to be able to create a database for all women in the fields of science and also conduct research on the perceptions of girls on science subjects. We are still doing research which will soon be published,” Nyirahabimana says.

Ikuzwe says that the biggest challenge so far is the discouragement from some people and school directors that they approach, as well as limited time to carry out all the activities.

To play a reasonable role, she needs to make trips to Kigali at least twice a year.

“We meet people who still think that we are overambitious and that women are not as capable as men. Also, members have fulltime jobs and have to sacrifice time for RAWISE work,” she said.

But Ikuzwe adds: “At the launch, the excitement of the members proved that the women wanted to collaborate but did not know how. The perception that physics and mathematics is for men will be history. This is our dream.”

She explains that RAWISE’s members are those pursuing a Master’s degree or a higher qualification in science, engineering or related fields. She says the association also plans to encourage men to join the association as part of its efforts to enlist the support of men in promoting the role of women in science fields.

“In the future, we want to have men as associate members because if we have men who understand us, then they will support women who are fighting to bridge the gap between men and women in science fields,” she says.


How can girls be encouraged to pursue sciences?

Sciences require determination and passion, however, parental guidance is important for these girls. More programmes and workshops directed towards motivating girls in sciences will encourage others to pursue STEM. Educators must strive to create favourable environments in school and science programmes that are ‘catchy’ if we want to build the field.

Ann Tumwesigye, Banker

Changing the negative perception that girls develop at a young age can help them embrace math and science in school, rather than avoid the subjects. As long as young boys and girls are exposed to science and technology, those with a genuine interest in the field will be able to act on it.

Marian Ingabire, Accountant

Mentoring is important in building confidence, especially for women in unbalanced work environments like engineering. Finding a mentor with the capacity to lead young people towards success will be of benefit.

Annet Agaba, Accountant

There is a need to engage men in solving the problem of gender equality even in the science field. Men need to understand the role of women in sciences and decision making, and motivate them to pursue science courses and careers.

Rebekah Talitha, Pharmacist

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