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In East Africa, there has been an historic imbalance in the number of men and women pursuing and holding posts in post-secondary education, with relatively few women at the university level. But efforts are being made to increase women's presence in all levels of university education.
Educator Martha Muhwezi recalls a graduation she attended recently at a science and technology institution in Uganda.
"Only 17 percent [of those graduating] were women," she said. "And I remember it was one of the issues, which the minister who was the guest of honor was emphasizing, on what strategies should be put in place to ensure that the number of women goes up."
Muhwezi, who is coordinator of the Uganda chapter of Forum for African Women Educationalists, says in Uganda and elsewhere in East Africa, the field of science has been viewed traditionally as a male domain. She says the Ugandan government is seeking to change that.
"In the recent past, there have been a lot of campaigns, a lot of emphasis, including the government, making sciences compulsory at [the] secondary [school] level so that girls do not have an option of opting for humanities," she said.
Push for science, tech
Similarly, in Kenya, an estimated 12 percent of students pursuing math and science majors in 2007 were women. But at one Kenyan university, 100 percent of the science and technology students are women.
Dr. Wanjiru Wanyoike is deputy vice chancellor of the Nairobi-based Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology, the only university in East Africa to cater specifically to women.
She says that part of the students’ training involves taking gender courses to examine how culture has shaped the way society views women and their capabilities in the sciences and other areas. She says students are also groomed for supervisory positions.
"When they are alone, for example here in Kiriri, we have the student body, so they take the leadership -- you have the chairlady, the secretary, the vice-chair, so you find they are also having these leadership roles leading girls. In these mainstream universities you find most of these leadership positions are occupied by boys," she said.
And women-held leadership positions within university administrations are vital for providing role models for young women, says Pamela Apiyo, national coordinator of FAWE’s Kenya chapter. She explains that top Kenyan universities now have women vice-chancellors.
"For example, at Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology we have Professor Mabel Imbuga," she said. "At Nazarene University, we have Professor Leah Marangu. At Kenyatta University we have Professor Olive Mugenda and we have Professor Brown at USIU. We are saying that these are interventions that will encourage girls to also aim high and aim for leadership positions."
Women are also increasing their numbers and profiles in research institutions through such initiatives as the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development mentorship program. The so-called AWARD program was launched in 2008 by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
AWARD program director and founder Vicki Wilde says the initiative, which pairs junior female researchers with senior scientists, aims to increase women’s leadership skills and visibility as well as their scientific knowledge.
She explains that in 2008, less than one in four agricultural researchers in the East Africa region were women, and less than one in seven were in management positions in agriculture institutions.
"We are seeing quite dramatic changes," she said. "For example, from our first two rounds of AWARD fellows, almost one-quarter of them have been promoted and another quarter completed their Master’s or PhDs. Almost half, 48 percent of our fellows, have received other awards: recognitions, fellowships, scholarships, grants."
She says, in addition, there has been what she terms a “statistically significant increase” in participants’ publications, which means that their research is increasingly being recognized by the scientific community.
She says AWARD receives nearly 3,000 applications for 250 two-year fellowships.