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Kenya Takes Steps to Develop Women Scientists

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

In a Kenya, few women are enrolled in colleges or universities in any academic field, and science and technology is no exception. But experts are concentrating on closing the gender gap in this important arena.

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In a Kenya, few women are enrolled in colleges or universities in any academic field, and science and technology is no exception. But experts are concentrating on closing the gender gap in this important arena.
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Judi Wakhungu

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Declining numbers of women students pursuing science and technology courses in Kenya's institutions of higher learning are causing concern in this East African country. According to current Ministry of Education figures, women, who form 21.5 percent of Kenya's 45,000 university students, constitute less than 20 percent of students studying these courses. In middle level colleges, which offer 1, 2 or 3-year certificate or diploma courses, they are only 5 percent.

Faced with these low percentages, the government has unveiled a program to rectify the problem. The Technical and Vocational Education and Training program, which was established last month by the Ministry of Science and Technology, is mandated to take necessary measures to increase women's ratio in these courses to at least 30 percent. The government is also taking steps to increase the number of girls in school and universities in general--last year parliament passed a bill that states that children irrespective of their gender have a right to education and made primary education free and compulsory. It also made it illegal for relatives to pull girls out of school for female circumcision.

"There is need to encourage more women to enroll in scientific courses to increase their employment opportunities. The government is committed to increase their numbers in the education system," Gideon Ndambuki, the Minister for Science and Technology, said while launching the program.The low ratio of women in these courses comes at a time when statistics indicate declining numbers of women at all levels of the educational system. While 63 percent of school-aged girls enroll in school every year, only a third complete the 8-year primary school cycle. Half of boys do so. Girls' drop out rate increases at secondary school, resulting in their very small numbers in universities. The Ministry of Education attributes the gender disparity to early pregnancies, parental preference for boys to attend school and female circumcision.

Circumcision, illegal in Kenya since December 2001, is still practiced in some communities. It is considered a rite of passage into adulthood, and girls often get married or simply do not return to school after healing from the procedure. Increasing levels of poverty have also worsened the problem for both boys and girls. School enrollment rate for young children was 96 percent in 1990 but now stands at 78 percent.

Some education experts have blamed an entrenched culture of male dominance for discouraging girls from achieving academic excellence. Professor Rosalind Mutua, former deputy vice chancellor of the only science and technology university in the country, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has conducted research that has exposed sexual harassment as a serious constraint to performance of girls in co-educational institutions.

Kenyatta University, the second oldest university in the country, was the first to publicly acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. In 1993, a committee was formed to investigate complaints of harassment of female students by male lecturers, and another was instituted in 1998 after two female students were raped by fellow male students. As a result of the committees' recommendations, a woman deputy director of student affairs was appointed and female guards and halls' janitors were also hired.

In 1999, a "sex for marks scandal" erupted at Egerton University. Female students forwarded to authorities names of lecturers who would never give proper marks without sexual favors. Six lecturers were suspended.


Cost Constraints Hamper Reforms

In addition to these concerns, Kenya's educational system has come under sharp criticism for stifling the potential of students in secondary schools to qualify for scientific courses at universities. In reaction to these concerns, the government in 1999 appointed a committee led by Dr. Davy Koech, director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, to investigate possible reforms. The Koech Report proposed the scrapping of the present system to be replaced by the British model, which was itself abandoned in 1985.

The government says the programs are too costly to implement, but critics say that President Daniel Arap Moi is reluctant to change the educational system since he personally initiated it when he came to power.

Professor Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Centre for Technology Studies, says there is an urgent need for the government to make a critical review of science subjects' contents in primary and secondary schools if more women are to be encouraged to embrace the sciences.

"For the last 16 years we have been playing around with the education system. The government should swallow its pride and admit that a mistake was done when initiating the present education system," says Wakhungu. According to her, science subjects at primary and secondary school level hinder students' interest in scientific disciplines by creating a notion that they are difficult. "This affects girls more since culturally they are supposed to see men as more capable than them."

Some women educators are taking steps to try and pave the way for girls to study science and technology. One of them is Professor Rosalind Mutua. She has helped found the country's first women's university, Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology.

"Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology aims at bridging the gender gap in education in Kenya and specifically in science and technology courses. Our aim is to encourage more women to take up the courses so that Kenya can produce more women scientists," says Mutua, the university's vice chancellor. "We believe that women have the potential to perform as well as their male counterparts in scientific fields if they are given a conducive atmosphere for study."

The university opened its doors to the first batch of 90 students in September 2002. Initially it will offer computer and environmental science courses and later introduce deeper sciences such as engineering and medicine.

Women who have succeeded in science and technology careers are giving encouragement to women students to venture into the sciences. The Kenya Medical Women's Association, a professional body for women doctors, involves women medical students in its activities as associate members.

"Our association aims at promoting health for women and children and the development of women in the medical profession. One of our goals is to act as role models for women medical students," says Dr. Josephine Ojiambo, the association's chair.

Dr. Ojiambo feels that efforts to increase the representation of women in science and technology should not be confined to education institutions.

"We should create a conducive work environment for women that allows career progression. That is the best way to encourage young girls to aspire to science and technology careers," she says.

Kenya is not the only country in Africa suffering from severe gender disparity in education. A recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization decried the low levels of women in science and technology in the continent's institutions of higher learning. Only a small percentage of girls in Africa are enrolled science and technology programs, ranging from as low as 3 per cent in Chad to 28 per cent in South Africa.

"Little recognition is given to the contribution of women scientists to development, perpetuating a negative role model for those girls who might choose to follow a scientific career," the report said.

David Karanja is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

For more information:

Education for Girls:
http://www.arcc.or.ke/gln/edugirl.html

African Centre for Technology Studies:
http://www.acts.or.ke/

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization--
"Difficulties Faced by girls in the Study of Science, Mathematics and Technology Subjects":
http://www.unesco.org/education/ste/projects/girls/femsa.shtml