NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--When 19-year-old Grace Kimani left her home near Naivasha town, about 56 miles west of Nairobi, to study mathematics at Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology it was not without a fight.
"My parents objected. My friends too. They feared I would become a feminist, since I was studying courses associated with men," Kimani told Women's eNews in an interview last month while downloading material from the university's computer lab. "But I am confident I will be able to work anywhere after this."
Kimani said that like many parents, her mother and father feared that by studying a field typically dominated by men she would have difficulty competing successfully. But driven by an interest in math that she developed in high school, Kimani overcame her parents' objections and persuaded them to permit her to enroll at Kiriri Women's University, where she is now a first-year math major.
Her story echoes that of many female students in Kenya, where the number of women studying math and science trails overall enrollment numbers for university women.
The female portion of the country's six public universities, with a total of about 45,000 students, rose to 13,833 in 2001 from 9,334 in 1990; a 48 percent increase that brought women to about 30 percent of total university enrollment, says Kilemi Mwiria, an assistant minister of education. But women are only about 12 percent of students pursuing math and science majors.
"While gender disparities in students' enrollment exist at all levels of higher education, they are particularly wide at higher degree levels and in science, mathematics and technology-oriented subjects," says Grace Bunyi of Kenyatta University's Educational Administration Planning and Curriculum Development Department.
First Lady Tackles Issue
It's an issue that the country's first lady, Lucy Kibaki, has personally tackled by calling on the government to review how science is taught in primary and secondary schools and to challenge stereotyped messages that present scientific and technical careers as being incompatible with a mother's role.
"The nature of the labor market is changing and an increasing number of occupations are scientific and technical," Kibaki said in a speech last May. "Unless women have the ability to access these occupations, they will continue to suffer marginalization and its associated cycle of poverty and oppression."
The first lady's interest in helping women overcome poverty and oppression is part of the country's overall struggle to develop and retain its educated work force.
Kenya loses academic faculty--particularly in medicine, nursing, engineering and research science--to the tune of 23,000 a year, according to a World Bank study. Poor working conditions and low wages are the cause; on average, a professor earns roughly $1,000 annually, but many migrate to Europe or the United States where they find significantly higher salaries.
The government has allowed more freedom for universities to develop new income sources and has also introduced parallel degree programs in order to retain academics; students pay for degree courses at market rates, and lecturers retain a portion of the tuition to increase their salaries.
Stemming Brain Drain
To stem the brain drain, the government has opened its school doors wider to admit more students in general--including women, who are less likely than men to migrate out of the country--and more students into math and science in particular.
Public universities in the late 1990s began lowering overall cut-off points for admission and establishing three types of affirmative action policies for women. These included lowering the cut-off points for female candidates; offering remedial courses; and developing science, math and technology outreach programs for girls and female teens in primary and secondary schools.
To further close the science gender gap, Paul Ndarua, a Kenyan architect, founded Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology in 2002 to cater to women interested in math, computer science and business.
The school has been operating out of a temporary campus in Nairobi while its main campus in Kasarani, about 15 miles away, undergoes construction. So far, Kiriri has admitted about 60 women and is targeting an annual enrollment of 90; the first graduates received their degrees in August 2006.
Hoping for Gains Ahead
Women's advocates hope that remedial courses and outreach programs for girls and teens interested in math and science will start paying off. But Professor Rosalind Mutua, vice chancellor at Kiriri, acknowledges that gains being marked at the current pace will not quickly change the math gender gap.
"I think at higher education level we cannot talk of 50-50. Not in the next 100 years, but you can reduce that gap by raising the number of women who are participating at higher education level," says Mutua. "We are talking about a critical mass where women would begin to make a difference in the society."
For now, Kimani says she is happy at Kiriri Women's University and is pursuing her dream of someday having a career in math or science. She says she enjoys studying alongside other young women like herself, with the same interests.
At this point she isn't specific about what she would like to do after school. The only examples she could give was to possibly work at a bank. She thinks she would like to stay in Kenya and Nairobi in particular, at least at first.
Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.