KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–Just off the main road heading out of Uganda’s capital is a ramshackle cinderblock building, the Kitetikka High School. In an unpainted science lab with no electricity and no running water, students study from yellowing textbooks.
They are eager to excel in science because of a recent announcement that most of the government’s university scholarships each year will go to students in the sciences. Now, about 53 percent of government scholarships are reserved for science students, a major boost from 13 percent before the science preference policy.
For these low-income students, most of whom come from households earning less than $1 a day, government scholarships are their only hope for attending university.
But education advocates such as the Forum for African Women Educationalists, say the new scholarship policy will further restrict the number of women going to university because of cultural biases against girls in science here.
Kitetikka student Ritah Nanteza, for instance, wants to be a surgeon. But friends of the 16-year-old say she shouldn’t even try.
"Girls’ minds aren’t good at science," one of Nanteza’s friends told Women’s eNews. Even her teacher agrees. "Girls don’t have the same capacity for sciences that boys do," said Francis Mulumba, a science teacher at the school.
"The girls in my classes have never performed as well as the boys. Some of it is cultural, some of it is mental and some of it is biological," he said.
Mulumba’s assessment of girls in science is widely held across Uganda, and the statistics reflect it. Women make up only a tiny percentage of science students at the major universities. And girls’ test scores are consistently lower than boys, with the widest performance gap in the sciences, according to the Kampala-based Association of Women Engineers, Technicians and Scientists in Uganda.
Emphasis on Science in Schools
While a scarcity of girls in sciences is not unique to Uganda, the combination with the government’s new preference for science students could have particularly grave effects on young women’s education.
Before the science preference policy, about 37 percent of government merit scholarships were awarded to women. This year that fell to 29 percent, according to the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports.
Major universities have already dramatically rolled back their admissions in non-science departments. "It simply means there are fewer options for girls to go to university," says Dorothy Muhume, the forum’s program officer. "The prejudice against girls in science is very real here, and now it means that girls will not be going to university."
The government already awards female students an additional one and a half points on their final exams to counteract the social obstacles they face in school. But the Uganda chapter of the Africa-wide Forum for African Women Educationalists is suggesting that further points be awarded in response to the new science policy.
"Because we are seeing a drop in the number of female scholarship recipients, it would make sense that affirmative action be taken in response to this new development," said Martha Muhwezi, a technical advisor to the forum in Uganda.
At Kitetikka High School, 18-year-old Herbert Kikiwambanga summed up the feeling among students. "Science is very difficult work, too difficult for the mind of a girl, that is why doctors are only men," he said.
Other students, both male and female, nodded in agreement.
Doing Science and Housework
Ritah Nanteza, however, is determined to succeed. She struggles daily to overcome the skepticism about her mental abilities, but she also faces logistical challenges.
"Our time for studying is very limited because as girls we have a lot of housework," she says. "It is very difficult to find the time to study things like sciences and math. That is why we are told to leave it for the boys."
Housework is one of the primary reasons for girls’ poor performance in Ugandan schools, says Muhume. They are expected to perform hours of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand and fetching water, often from more than five miles away.
In rural areas, where cultural biases against girls are more deeply entrenched and housework much greater, the science gap is even more pronounced, she says.
Muhume says the new science policy compounds the already profound challenges to a girl’s academic success here. The forum is promoting education campaigns to counteract the discouragement that girls like Nanteza face.
"I think the key is to educate parents," says Proscovia Njuki. She was the first woman in East Africa to graduate with a degree in engineering, and she founded the Association of Women Engineers, Technicians and Scientists in Uganda to address the scientific gender gap.
‘Static Gender Notions’
"In Uganda, especially in rural areas, the notions of gender are very static. Parents and teachers discourage girls from sciences because they fear it will make a girl child unattractive, and she will not be able to marry," she said. "That is a very big deal here, especially for poor families. There is a perception that a woman scientist is no longer a woman, and therefore no man will want her as a wife."
Now, Njuki is the Africa coordinator for the Gender Advisory Board of the Geneva-based United Nations Council on Science, Technology for Development. She tours Uganda speaking to schoolgirls about careers in science.
"One of the first things I tell them is that I am married. And you can tell, it immediately makes them much more comfortable. It’s probably the most important thing they learn from me, that women can be scientists and still have a husband."
She says she has seen girls heckled and booed in high school science classes.
"I was teased too," she says "I was one woman in a class of 40 men at university. Professors would yell at me for asking too many questions, one of them would always yell ‘women!’ in disgust," she says, laughing.
Although her family teased her for pursing a profession that would result in her "wearing pants" and "working outside," Njuki has encouraged her daughters to pursue science.
In an indication of parents’ ability to help turn the key on Uganda’s nationwide lockout of girls from science, Njuki’s youngest daughter is studying mechanical engineering at Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University. Entering high school, Njuki says with pride, her daughter was the top-ranked science student in the country.
Anna S. Sussman is a print and radio journalist. She currently lives in Uganda.
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This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.