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SCIENCE AND THE FUTURE OF AFRICAN WOMEN

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has been described as one the most empowering and creative fields that one could invest a career in but, according to UNESCO, only 30% of the world’s researchers are women, while jobs in Computer Science, Medicine, Pharmacy, Engineering and other branches of modern science represented in STEM are still held preponderantly by men. Generally, women make up less than a quarter of STEM professionals, and only about 20% of these women in STEM are in leadership roles. It is through STEM, naturally, that we get our medical practitioners, nuclear scientists and all manner of engineers, yet half of the world (women) are under-represented. Happily, a remedy seems to be on the way in Africa as, a couple of weeks ago here at Bayero University Kano’s Centre of Gender Studies, a conference with the theme “Women in STEM for Africa (WIS4AFRICA) Summit” was convened. Founder of the Summit and Convenor of the Workshop, Muddassir Sulaiman Abdullah (taubat1234@gmail.com), summarised the event for us:

Imagine, for a moment, that you awaken at night abruptly as if from a dream. Coming to consciousness and blinking your eyes against the darkness, you find that, inexplicably, you are standing alone in a vast, pitch-dark cavern. Befuddled by this predicament, you wonder: Where am I? What is this space? What are its dimensions?

Groping in the darkness, you stumble upon a book of damp matches. You strike one; it quickly flares, then fizzles out. Again, you try; again, a flash and a fizzle. But in that moment, you realise that you can glimpse a bit of your surroundings. The next match strike lets you sense some faint walls far away. Another flare reveals a strange shadow, suggesting the presence of a big object. Yet another suggests you are moving – or, instead, the room is moving relative to you. With each momentary flare, a bit more is learned. Science, it is, that can open your eyes to view this horizon.

Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people, over 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages, with different needs and wants – ranging from food to shelter, from innovations to technology, from energy to health, from security to education…and many more. About 51% of Africa’s population are women, and about 50% of the global population are also women.

More girls are in school today than ever before, but they do not always have the same opportunities as boys to complete and benefit from an education of their choice. Too many girls and women are held back by biases, social norms and expectations influencing the quality of the education they receive and the subjects they study. They are particularly under-represented in STEM education, and consequently in STEM careers.

Women in STEM for Africa Summit (WIS4AFRICA Summit) is a non-profit organisation primarily motivated by the under-representation and lack of girls’ and women’s participation and leadership in positions across STEM careers in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. The Summit’s objectives include empowering girls and women to enrol, enter and stay the course in STEM fields of studies and careers, and to improve their participation and achievement in STEM education and to reduce the gender gap in STEM professions.

It is also aimed at strengthening the capacity of countries to deliver gender-responsive STEM education, including through teacher-training, educational contents and pedagogy, and to enhance the awareness of the importance of STEM education for girls and women. It also aims at providing an intense inspiration and insight about the state of girls and women participation in STEM in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. This one-day workshop was a series of paper presentations and panel discussions by professionals from STEM fields and its related academic areas.

In some sense, the situation mentioned in that earlier dream recalls our puzzling predicament on Earth as described by Professor Vera Rubin, an American astronomer who pioneered works on galaxy rotation and the evidence for Dark Matter in the Universe. Today, mankind has travelled to the moon; voyaged to the heart of atom; found the secret of life (DNA); discovered the cures for some of the assumed definite-death diseases; answered some of the mysteries of the Universe; sequenced the human genome…yet many more innovations, discoveries, and development are still yet to be born.

Who are the leading players in this adventure? What do these and so many adventures of modern scientific discoveries tell us? One message is very clear: that science is more than just “science”. It is the result of the vision of those who govern us about where they want to take their societies in the future.

In history, Africa and African women are not far behind in science and innovation – in fact we are pioneers. Long before Harvard in America or Oxford in the UK, there was Al-Qarawiyin University in Morocco which was the world’s first and oldest existing university, founded as it was by a Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fihri. In 859 CE, Al-Fihri founded this university in Fes, Morocco, which is today recognised by the United Nations as the oldest existing and continually operating university in the world, as well as the first to award degrees.

According to the UNESCO’s ground-breaking report “Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM”, only a third of STEM students in higher education globally are women, and differences are observed within STEM disciplines. For example, only 3% of female students in higher education choose information and communication technologies (ICT) studies. This gender disparity is alarming, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future, driving innovation, social wellbeing, inclusive growth and sustainable development.

UNESCO is giving special attention to this issue as part of its efforts to promote the empowerment of women and girls through education and as a response to its Member States’ decision on UNESCO’s role in encouraging girls and women to be leaders in STEM, including arts and design.

This BUK Summit is therefore one that tries to echo UNESCO’s attempt at improving the participation of women and girls in STEM. But there is a long way to go – despite the fact that there are many female university professors in STEM as well as female Coders and other innovators, only a few privileged girls do get into these professions. The Summit noted that it is even more difficult for children of the poor who attend public schools to make the break.

Today, the great granddaughters of Fatima Al-Fihri are engaging in an extraordinary enterprise in an attempt to continue working in her footsteps for producing women from Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that will change the face of Africa in the world. This is the primary motivation behind organising this Women in STEM for Africa Summit.

The Summit was a successful academic exercise led by Dr. Rabi’a Salihu Sa’id, an Associate Professor of Physics, who is herself an inspiration for the more than 150 mostly female lecturers, teachers, schools proprietresses, journalists and schoolgirls and activists that came to discuss Women in STEM. Three words will describe the outcome: WOMEN WILL OVERCOME!

 

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