The African Union has marked its 11th anniversary with ceremonies honoring five scientists.
AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping told the 11th anniversary gathering that women's gross under representation in science and technology is a sign of their exclusion from the mainstream economy. He pledged to do more to encourage women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields.
But when it was her turn at the microphone, award-winning nutrition scientist, Professor Salimata Wade of Senegal replied that Africa's leaders must do more than just encourage. She urged governments to create programs that recognize scientific abilities in girls from a young age, and to support research programs run by women.
Each of the winners of the Regional Scientific Awards receives a check for $20,000.
But Dr. Hassina Mouri, an Algerian woman who who won for her work as a professor of geology at Johannesburg University in South Africa, says the money is less important than the forum it provides as a role model for other women and girls. She says the secret the five winners hope to pass on is that the only path to success is hard work.
"We have been discussing with the other sisters that it is one of the best ways to encourage the other females to follow the same paths, and to work hard," Mouri said. "Not just to believe in 'the gender', that we are females so we can get promoted or get awards, but to work hard; because the award comes with hard work, not because we are females."
Professor Mary Abukutsa of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology won for her research on production of indigenous vegetables in poor countries, and her work as a determined promoter of agricultural biodiversity. She sees the award as an end in itself, because it gives other women a belief in themselves.
"Many of the women who will see us receiving this will be encouraged, and when we speak to them and we share what we have experienced here," Abukutsa says, "I think it will give them a boost in an endeavor to solve our African problem of poverty, malnutrition and poor health."
Dr. Grace Murilla is the Kenyan principal investigator with a University of North Carolina-led consortium developing drugs to treat parasitic diseases such as trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness. She says she is humbled to be recognized, because countless other African women are toiling anonymously in low-paying jobs just as important as hers. She said her message to others like her is simple; persistence.
"It does not matter what challenges you go through," Murilla says, "especially when you are in a male dominated world they would like to do things to distract you from the goals you want to pursue. Never give up. Set your goals. Look for somebody you know you can mentor you, you know we are in a global village and it is very easy to reach out to people who can mentor you. Do not ever give up. Just continue."
The fifth winner, Genevieve Barro, is the first female professor in the Mathematics Department at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Her specialty is information technology and numeric simulation.
AU officials say the scientific awards presentation is becoming an annual feature of African Union Day. The anniversary marks the transformation of the Organization of African Unity into the African Union on September 9, 1999.