Participation of women and girls in science crucial for Africa’s development

Share |

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, February 11, presents an opportunity to look at the intersection of two important issues  – gender and science – and their impact on economic development and quality of life.

Science and gender equality are both crucial for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are in line with the African Development Bank’s Ten Year Strategy and its five development priorities – the High 5s.

The needs of the continent, including infrastructure development, industrialization, modernization of agriculture, private sector development and the improvement of governance systems and accountability, all have a common denominator: the need for people with access to science and technology. There is no improvement of life of Africans without investing in skills, science and technology, and innovation.

Although each individual story is different, a simple look at the experiences of individual countries shows similarities in the fact that investment in science, technology and innovation has great returns in economic development.  Similarly, there are returns in investing in inclusion – having women and men in all fields, equipped with knowledge and access to science and technology in order to solve the problems they face in their daily life.

Even today, women and girls in parts of the African continent continue to face additional obstacles to basic education. Traditional gender roles are also reflected in academia, where there are only a minority of women in the fields of science and technology. Gender prejudices not only hold women and girls back – they hold our societies back as well.

Even though women have made great gains in higher education and participation in research globally, only a third of the world’s researchers are women. In Africa the percentage is 34%, but this global number hides huge disparities on the continent. In Cape Verde 52% of researchers are women, 47% in Tunisia, 40% in South Africa and Uganda. Guinea is on the other extreme with only 6% women researchers, followed by Ethiopia with 7.6%, Mali with 10.6 and Côte d’Ivoire with 16.5%. 

In as much as gender inequalities in academia and research persist, there is segregation of scientific disciplines and subfields, with engineering, technological and industrial research being most heavily male-dominated. We see also this inequality affecting decision-making in academia, as there are few women in those leadership positions which shape scientific priorities and agendas. 

Why should we promote gender equality in science, academia and technology?

  • Human capital/research system perspective: The best talents and brains should be recruited to science and technology regardless of gender – “equality means quality”.
  • Societal/economic development perspective: Societal investment in educating and training women should not be wasted – inequality as a (national) economic issue.
  • Epistemological perspective: A more diverse scientific community produces more multi-faceted research and raises different questions – equality produces better science and technology.
  • Human rights perspective: Each individual should have a right to realise his/her potential regardless of gender – inequality and discrimination is a human rights violation.

The AfDB is working with its member countries to promote science and technology, and also to ensure the advancement and empowerment of women in these fields. The Bank has launched a number of operations and initiatives towards this goal. They include the following:

  • Policy dialogue: Africa Ministerial Forum on Science Technology and Innovation (Kenya 2012, Morocco 2014). The Bank and its partners spearheaded two high level ministerial conferences on Science, Technology and Innovation, which highlighted participation of women as key. The Nairobi and Rabat Ministerial Declarations signed by over 30 African Ministers of Science and Technology show the commitment of African government for the Science, Technology and Innovation agenda.
  • Projects and operations: The AfDB has an active project portfolio in Science, Technology and Innovation in more than 20 countries focusing on human capital in higher education in science and technology fields, all of them with a gender component. Examples of these operations are:

A US $112.24-million Development of Skills for Industry Project in Ghana, whose implementation period is 2013 to 2018: It aims at supporting the development of high quality middle level technical and vocational skills needed in the Ghanaian economy. The specific objectives of the project include: (i) Expanding equitable access to public institutions targeting women and girls and the rural poor, (ii) Improving relevance, equity and quality of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) delivery. The project has a Bursary Scheme aimed at supporting needy and disadvantaged students in TVET within the formal and informal sectors with emphasis on female students. The bursary will support 1,550 students from technical institutions and polytechnics as well as 2,500 apprentices. Selection of the beneficiaries of the bursary, of which 60% are female, and the implementation of a role model program which is a mentorship component of the bursary scheme are expected to increase the enrollment of females in male dominated trades in the long run.

A multinational project to support higher education in the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (PAES-UEMOA) countries: The project ensures that at least 33% of those who benefit from the trainings and a competitive fund for research are women.  At present 37% of the beneficiaries of competitive funding for grants of excellence have been women, but only 10% of beneficiaries of competitive funding for research work are women. This underscores the need to further support and encourage member countries, to ensure improved access to science and technology fields by women.

In October 2015, the Bank hosted an inaugural Innovation Weekend at its headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in search of technology-led solutions from West Africa to better the lives of women and youth. The three-day event focused on two main themes for technology innovation in West Africa: financial inclusion and developing skills for women and youth to address the region’s needs and create jobs

“We want big ideas to generate big wins, and that means taking big risks,” said AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina in his message to participants. “However, ideas without money will eventually die. As the African Development Bank, we want to look at ways in which we can create accelerator funds to incubate these ideas,” he said.

The Bank, together with other partners, is also involved in the “Searching for Martha” project, a UNESCO initiative seeking to empower young African women entrepreneurs to train young girls on the continent, enabling them to develop, sell and widely promote mobile applications targeting the SDGs, as well as create employment opportunities.