Empowering women starts with girls at home, school

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By Kristen Reesor

DES MOINES, Iowa — When Fatima Denton’s son was 8 years old, he had a school project on volcano eruptions. As he explained how an eruption happens, Denton —who is the director of the Special Initiatives Division in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and has worked in science all her life — interjected with an idea.

Her son responded, “Hang on, Mommy. Let me finish explaining. You’re not a scientist.”

That was one of the experiences five women leaders told the audience at the Women Leaders Driving Science and Innovation for Agricultural Transformation in Africa panel Friday at the 2016 World Food Prize conference.

The panelists emphasized the importance of changing social gender norms and improving the climate for women scientists and farmers. Lindiwe Sibanda, the CEO and head of the Mission, Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, moderated.

The women said the prevailing negative attitude in Africa toward women in science is evident from an early age, as Denton’s anecdote illustrated. Most of the panelists experienced backlash for having childhood interests in science and agriculture. Their enthusiasm did not fit the stereotype that women can only perform domestic work.

“When we got back home from the farm, my sisters and I had another job to start: collect the water, collect the firewood, make dinner for everybody, clean up, get ready for school the following morning. My brothers studied and played,” said Jemimah Njuki, senior program specialist at the International Development Research Centre.

“At a time when teachers believed women could not do mathematics, I was a mathematician, and I used to beat the boys,” said Ruth Oniang’o, the chair of the Boards of Sasakawa Africa Association and Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of the Republic of Mauritius, shared a similar memory. She wanted to study chemistry when she was a child, and a school guidance counselor questioned her choice. The counselor told her chemistry was for boys and no jobs would be available to her.

The women said devaluing girls’ education makes it harder for girls to achieve high-level leadership positions and diminishes the impact of their voices and research as adults.

The women offered many solutions to gender-based inequality

“We need the men to support the women,” said Oniang’o, citing the women’s rights contributions of World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn and African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina.

The panelists also stressed the role of women helping and supporting each other. Sibanda said women leaders must pass the fight for equality onto their daughters and other women. Oniang’o takes this on by mentoring young women.

Dominique Charron, the director for agriculture and environment at Canada’s International Development Research Centre, said institutions also can help by providing opportunities for women to grow their confidence early on in their careers. Institutions should insist on accurate gender representation in research teams and provide grants for women researchers, she said.

Teachers also have a role to play in encouraging girls to pursue fields in science.

“We have to make agriculture far more sexy,” said Gurib-Fakim and added that educators must make science relevant to young girl’s lives and make them appreciate how science is alive all around us.

All of the panelists agreed progress has been made toward equal opportunities for women, but more improvement is needed.

“It seems like we’ve been chipping away at a rock, and it is not falling,” Njuki said.

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