Women for Science

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  • Educating girls

    A crucial factor in the establishment of a grassroots S&T base is to ensure girls’ access to education. Girls in villages are faced with formidable barriers, including harsh living conditions, as well as cultural and religious traditions—such as leaving home at a very young age to get married—that may preclude or abruptly terminate their schooling.

    There are also constraints for girls who remain with their families. While tuition and textbooks at the pre-college levels are often provided at negligible cost in the more prosperous economies, they are frequently a major financial impediment to people in developing countries. Parents generally spend what income they have on educating sons; and even when money is available for educating daughters, these children are often put to work for their families doing a variety of domestic tasks. This practice leads to poor performance at school or even dropping out of formal education altogether. In Ethiopia, for instance, women have a greater chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing primary education (Wax, 2005).

     There is also a vicious cycle at work. A UNICEF project examined barriers to primary education in developing countries and found that 75 percent of children who are out of primary school have mothers who themselves received no education, largely because of poverty. This proportion rises to 80 percent in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa (UNICEF, 2005). These data emphasize the importance of getting girls into school, especially as they will be the mothers of the future and thus be essential to ending the vicious cycle. Girls’ education is essential not only to building a science-literate and more affluent village population but also to launching the education of the next generation of teachers, scientists, and engineers, some of whom will then be available for outreach to the villages.

    Education programmes based in developing countries typically face many challenges. These programmes must first aim to convince girls’ families that their basic (primary) education is worthwhile. This is difficult to do however if schools are underfunded, teaching materials are insufficient, teachers are unprepared, and girls are ill informed about the benefits of learning about science and technology. In fact, in developing and developed countries alike, there is an urgent need for well-prepared primary and secondary-level science teachers.

     One increasingly popular way to stimulate people’s interest in education in general—and in science and technology in particular —is the hosting of community-based activities. Undertaken at schools, community locations, and online, these programmes are typically run by enthusiasts who inspire students (and their parents), act as mentors, and provide career information. Online activities, of course, can reach diverse areas that include but are not limited to villages. One such programme aimed at attracting young people, girls and boys alike, is the pan-African online science magazine Science in Africa. Through mechanisms such as poems and lively storytelling, this innovative website builds science literacy and encourages exploration (www.scienceinafrica.co.za).

    Other programmes begin addressing the cost barrier by providing inexpensive science-education equipment—such as the kit depicted in Box 4.1—that also supports girls’ preference for learning through hands-on experimentation (Head, 1996).

    UNICEF also sponsors multi-country projects to improve girls’ primary education. In Gambia and Burkina Faso, mothers’ clubs work with schools to help reduce the dropout rate of girls. In Ethiopia, teacher training is improving classroom learning. And a plan of action in 34 countries to promote gender-sensitive primary education is being developed and implemented (www.unicef.org).

    If girls do manage to acquire a primary education, they face hurdles in obtaining parental permission and the necessary financial support to enter secondary school. Because one major obstacle is families’ reluctance to allow an unmarried young woman to leave home, it is important that secondary education not be centralized; in order for high school or its equivalent to be accessible to girls, it must be decentralized.

    Thus Turkey’s Association in Support of Contemporary Living funds programmes for girls that include the setting up of distance-learning classes and the provision of resources to support their enrollment in primary and secondary schools. Girls in rural areas are also given access to computers and courses in tourism, business, and English. Acquisition of Internet skills and access to online education projects about small businesses and e-government are aimed at helping young women so that they may start their own commercial enterprises and generally be role models for girls in their region (www.cydd.org.tr).

    Beyond providing girls with greater literacy and competence for their daily lives and future economic activities, educating them to a higher standard at the primary and secondary levels renders a new generation of women capable of pursuing S&T education at the tertiary level. They may then expand the ranks of women who train others —particularly grassroots women in rural and urban locales—in the skillful application of science and technology.


    • Academies are called upon to ensure that their public-understanding-of-science efforts include community-based programmes. These initiatives, while addressing virtually all children and adults, must specifically appeal to girls and women.
    • In those cultures where families are unwilling to let unmarried daughters move far from home, the InterAcademy Council, InterAcademy Panel, and academies are asked to advocate that secondary and subsequent schooling be made available locally for girls and young women, along with their access to the needed information technology.
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