Science and Technology
African Regional Forum
As part of the preparations for the World Conference on Science for the Twenty-first Century, UNESCO has initiated a series of consultations around the globe designed to report on the participation of women in scientific and technological development, as well as to pinpoint resources that could help bridge the huge gap that now exists between the number of men and women working in this field.
At the invitation of the government of Burkina Faso, a Forum was organized on this subject for some sixty African experts, most of them women in positions of responsibility in science and technology in their country of origin. Citizens of forty-three different countries, these participants represented all the linguistic zones of the continent. Among them was a representative of the African Economic Commission (AEC), as well as representatives from womens associations and non-governmental organizations (especially the Third World Organization for Women in Science (TWOWS) and the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE)).
The Forum was organized in close collaboration with the Burkina Faso authorities, with the collaboration of the African National Commissions for UNESCO and the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ISESCO.
The work of the Forum was carried out during plenary sessions (panels), each consisting of one or more substantial presentations followed by debate and proposals.
In a report entitled The scientific and technological education of girls in primary schools in Africa, Mrs. Alice Tiendrebeogo, Minister of Womens Affairs in Burkina Faso, began by underlining the essential role women play in national economies, especially in agriculture where they account for 60-80% of food crops, as well as in the management of natural resources. She regretted that girls arent given sufficient basic training nor suitable technical training to help them fulfill these responsibilities.
She then focused on the high illiteracy rate among women in subsaharan Africa (an average 72% compared to 51% among men) and the low school attendance rate among girls (under 50%), as well as stating that over 50% of girls attending classes drop out before the end of primary school.
She explained that the education system doesnt meet the needs of girls and that it doesnt sufficiently take into consideration the traditional knowledge acquired by them through communal living.
She denounced the difference in teachers attitudes toward boys and girls, and demonstrated that textbooks propagate preconceived ideas that perpetuate a stereotyped, low image of women as being passive, irresponsible, not very competent and usually limited to domestic activities.
She also analysed the role of parents who, having less confidence in the capabilities of their daughters than those of their sons, and considering that mathematics and sciences are masculine fields, dont orient their daughters toward scientific and technical studies.
The debate that followed her presentation demonstrated how indispensable the scientific education of women is to the development of Africa, as well as to the continents participation in the world economy.
This panel mainly covered the situation of girls compared to the scientific and technological education given in secondary schools. Three reports were presented:
Surveys carried out in various African states revealed that school attendance among girls is generally low, that they go to school less often and for a shorter period of time than boys and that their representation at the various school levels was decreasing. Thus, in 1997-98, 33.4% of girls in Burkina Faso attended primary school compared with 48% of boys, that 7.41% of girls attended secondary school as compared with 12.9% of boys, and that only 0.41% of girls had a college-level education as compared to 1.7% of boys
Moreover, the studies revealed that girls are generally few and far between in secondary schools, and that they choose scientific and technological studies less often than boys (accounting for under 25% of students enrolled in these classes in Burkina Faso; they also have a lower success rate, especially due to problems with mathematics. According to a survey carried out in 1990-96 in four African countries, 80-90% of girls had bad grades in mathematics and 60-80% were having problems in science courses.
Those present all agreed to pinpoint the main factors responsible for this situation:
First in the family unit and subsequently in society, girls are still not viewed as having the same aptitudes as boys, and science courses are not viewed as being part of their basic education. Therefore girls are educated differently than boys and usually are not encouraged to pursue scientific and technical studies.
Victims of reserved fields, they are left outside the boundaries of socially respected activities that are well-paid and cost-efficient.
Given the present economic crisis, parents choose to send their boys to school instead of their girls, to whom they assign domestic chores and activities that generate only limited income to help meet the needs of the family and, in some cases, they are forced into arranged or early marriages.
As soon as a girl enters school, she is confronted with inappropriate programmes, sexist stereotypes, outdated teaching approaches and methods, the negative attitudes of the teachers, male and female, and the lack of any models. If she is interested in science, she will not receive the encouragement necessary to persevere.
Given this situation, strong action was taken by the governments and by national and international organizations in order to improve the scientific and technological education of girls:
The debate following these presentations confirmed that almost all the African governments represented at the Forum were aware of the need to improve the scientific education of girls and that many initiatives have been implemented, such as:
The Panel focused on the position of women in scientific and technological careers (research, higher education and engineering) and on the possibilities for promotion in these professsions.
It included numerous presentations:
These numerous presentations gave an overview of the situation of women in scientific and technological careers in Africa. In spite of the differences found in the subregions represented, as concerns the attendance of girls at the three school levels, the problems of recruiting women scientists and engineers were found to be of the same order in all the countries studied. It was underlined that women were rare in scientific and technological careers (under 30%), that they usually chose biology over other fields, and that they are still absent from positions of decision-making and responsibility.
In Côte dIvoire, women are underrepresented among teaching scientists: 5 women tenured professors in health sciences; 10% of women tenured professors in the other scientific, training and research Units. There are no women research directors nor research professors; all women are merely research associates or research assistants.
In Burkina Faso, there is only one woman among the 18 tenured university professors. Women make up a scant 8.8% of the non-contractual research scientists at the National Center for Scientific and Technological Research. There are no women in positions of responsibility at this research center.
A study of the statistics for southern African countries reveals that, although school attendance among girls in primary and secondary schools is high and even greater than among boys (83% school attendance with over 50% girls, and 53.5% girls in secondary schools in Botswana in 1994-95), girls are still not well represented in scientific careers. Women make up an average 28% of science students at the University of Botswana and, for the countries of the subregion, 10% of the teachers in Faculties of Science, with only 0.71% of the professors.
The problems women encounter in higher education and research are accentuated in the engineering professions. Women represent 3.5% of engineers and 11.3% of technicians in Mali. Sudan has the highest percentage of women engineers with 15.8%.
Participants likened the access of African women to scientific and technological careers to a walk through a minefield. As a scientific career is long and particularly arduous for a women, girls often choose studies with short curricula and which rapidly lead to employment. Of those who dare pursue the scientific adventure, many decide to change direction after several years of study or professional practice.
The subsequent debates demonstrated that the difficulties mentioned during the various presentations concerned all of Africa. In addition to this observation, the participants strongly insisted on the need to increase the presence of women in scientific professions with a view to durable human development. The objective is to achieve a critical mass of women scientists, and thus to reinforce the scientific potential of the continent. But above and beyond this quantitative aspect, the goal is to enrich not only the scientific community, but society as a whole by contributing new ideas, different viewpoints, original methods and undoubtedly motivations to strive for a culture of Peace. Consequently the Forum was asked to help encourage governments to take into consideration the considerable untapped resources that the women of the African continent represent.
Many recommendations were made (see Regional Action Plan), including the following:
The presentations of this Panel focused on the place and role of vocational training in science and technology as regards the new needs of companies:
Working from concrete examples, the participants demonstrated how the technological evolution affecting companies nowadays should incite decision-makers to offer women suitable vocational training.
In the textile industry, one of the sectors generating the most jobs in Africa, in the solar energy industry and in other professional branches (conservation and transformation of foodstuffs, for example), women often account for most of the least qualified workers. The new technologies and the advent of computers has caused profound changes in corporate operations. This evolution forces companies to recruit a qualified workforce which often is not available on the marketplace as yet. To remedy this problem, it will be necessary to design and implement vocational training programmes that include sciences, mathematics and corporate management in order to allow girls to find interesting, well-paid jobs.
The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts presented its information education programmes in health, nutrition and environmental protection designed essentially for girls and young women who are illiterate or have had only a limited education.
The discussions focused on the importance of non-formal education in helping illiterate women in their daily life. Distance learning was also suggested. As concerns vocational training, mention was made of the limited offer that has to cover a growing demand and the insufficient number of qualified professors at training centers, as well as the excessively restricted fleet of facilities available to meet a massive student body. Several participants mentioned the difficulty girls encounter in their professional integration, at the end of their training period.
It was requested that associations of women scientists and engineers draw up an inventory of the technologies used by women in handicrafts, and more generally speaking in the various activities of the informal sector, and that they encourage the transfer of more suitable technologies.
Among the achievements of the study are the creation of an International Centre for the Coordination of Women-oriented Activities, located in Burkina Faso and destined to become a pole of activity in education and training.
Subsequent to these presentations, several proposals were submitted:
On the last day, the Forum adopted two documents:
The participants finalized the message the Forum addressed to all those involved in the future of Africa. This message, called the Ouagadougou Declaration, attempts to underline the fact that drastic changes in teaching and training methods are vital to the development of Africa. It is specifically addressed to the African governments, UNESCO, international non-governmental organizations, bilateral and multilateral development aid institutions, and to all those who, by their position, can help promote womens access to development and the application of science in their country, that is to say, parents, teachers, research scientists, industrialists and corporate managers.
On the continental level, the Forum also proposed a Regional Action Plan designed to encourage and promote initiatives taken by all African member states, by placing at their disposal data, experience and all other means they require in this field, through regional and subregional projects, networks, associations, etc.
Subsequently, the Forum held a closing ceremony during which Mr Noureini Tidjani-Serpos, Deputy Director-General, in charge of the Priority Africa Department at UNESCO, praised the courage of the Forums participants in the face of the poverty, social injustice, exclusion, and marginalisation women suffer as concerns the sharing of knowledge, faced with the challenges of globalization and encouraged them to work with the various components of society to build a new world, a world of peace.
His Excellency François Cousin, French Ambassador to Burkina Faso, expressed his countrys satisfaction at having contributed to the success of this important meeting of women scientists and engineers, the conclusions of which should enrich the debate at the World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century.
Mr Christophe Dabiré, Minister of Secondary and Higher Education and Scientific Research of Burkina Faso, made a solemn pronouncement in favour of the advancement of women in general, and more specifically in the field of science and technology. He declared, "I will work with my African counterparts in charge of Education and Training to ensure a qualitative change in attitudes, as well as a reform in the design of pedagogical and teaching tools, so that in the future girls and boys alike will be viewed with a positive outlook".
After inviting the participants to continue their action vis-à-vis their governments and their research and teaching institutions, he declared the Forum closed.
Drafted and adopted in Ouagadougou, January 28, 1999
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