LOME, Togo (WOMENSENEWS)–As students on motorbikes and scooters arrive at the sprawling campus of the University of Lome–one of only two universities in the entire country–it’s a lot easier to spot young men than young women.
That’s particularly true outside the Faculty of Science.
Only 4,300 of the school’s roughly 20,000 students are women. In the science departments the ratio is lower; 128 in 1,565.
Isabelle Adole Glitho, a professor of entomology, says the government of this small West African nation does little to encourage women to study sciences. That, she says, has been left to a small group of female professors, lecturers and senior students.
In 1995, Glitho founded the Togolese Association for the Promotion of Women in Science at the university, where she is currently just one of three female professors in the entire school.
The group’s goal is to boost female faculty–including professors and lower-level lecturers–across all sectors of science at Lome, which, according to its annual report, struggles with insufficient equipment, facilities and money.
There are no female faculty in the schools of agriculture or engineering. There is one each in zoology, geology and physiology.
More Female Students Needed
But to boost female faculty more female science students are needed first.
To that end Glitho and a small group of female science teachers and senior-level students are battling stereotypes and trying to persuade girls they can master science just as well as the boys.
“Teachers don’t connect girls (with science) like they connect boys,” she says.
In the country’s secondary schools–where according to UNICEF just 14 percent of girls of school-going age are enrolled–the association is sending university students from Lome to talk with students and encourage them to study sciences. They help them set up science clubs, Glitho says.
The University of Lome has been a site of the general political unrest that has hindered tiny Togo in recent years.
The school was shut for a month in 2004 after students protested against living conditions under then-president Gnassingbe Eyadema, who died in 2005 and ruled the tiny, French-speaking West African country since coming to power in a military coup in 1967.
After Eyadema’s death his son was installed as president amid international outrage. Elections were held that were criticized by election observers, but Faure Gnassingbe has now been leading the government for about two years.
While Togo was ruled by his father as a dictatorship, Faure Gnassinbge has made few moves to stabilize a shaky political situation in the country. Parliamentary elections that were due earlier this year have been postponed, with no new date set yet.
Security Forces at Gate
At the university’s gates, a crew of government security forces maintains a constant presence.
“They’re always there,” Glitho says. And, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Human Rights Report on Togo, government informers and undercover police attend classes to inform on student activities.
Ddespite the guarded atmosphere on campus, women are still slowly gaining ground, says Glitho.
In 1990, 1,119 women were enrolled, making up about 12 percent of the total population. By 2000, those figures had risen to 2,684, or 18 percent. Following the death of the dictator, in 2005 female enrolment jumped to 4,280 and has since been edging higher.
Now that more women are here, Glitho wants to make sure they stay. In 2001 her group began a mentoring program to ensure female students who start in the sciences stick with it. The program matches senior-level students with first- or second-year young women.
One of those student mentors is Kplolali Ahama, a 24-year-old in her fourth year of plant physiology who says her father encouraged her to study science. She fights the stereotype that science is just too hard for girls with a simple comeback.
“It’s not (more) difficult for the women because we have the same intellect,” she says.
Hopes for a Small Business
Ahama plans to continue her studies after her graduation and hopes to start her own small business related to her field of study.
Student mentors like Ahama are supported financially by the association, which gets a bit of funding from the university but is also supported by faculty members.
As mentors, students are paid about $8 per each two- or three-hour session, a healthy sum in a country where gross national income per capita is just $350 per year, according to the World Bank.
“There are a lot of problems (for female students) so we try to tell them you’re not alone,” says Kafui Kpegba, an organic chemistry lecturer.
Glitho says she was the lone African female studying science at the university in the 1970s and she’s glad to see that changing.
“I believe in 10 years there will be more women (as) scientists,” she says. “Each year, women are advancing.”
Emily Bowers is a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.