ISP graduate initiates regional gender network

The sun is about to set in Lake Victoria when 20 female mathematicians from universities in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia get off the ferry at the island Buggala in the Kalangala District in Uganda. They have gathered to attend a three-day workshop aiming to set the ground for an Eastern Africa network for women in the basic sciences, and at the same time take the opportunity to reach out to teachers and students at the island schools.

What they have in common is the reality of being one of few female PhD holders at their departments. What they also share is the dedication to change the situation. The workshop is organized by the Ugandan Women in Mathematics (UGAWOM), initiated by ISP graduate Dr Betty Nannyonga, a senior lecturer in mathematics at Makerere University and part of the Eastern African Universities Mathematical Programme (EAUMP) supported by ISP.

Betty has been working to address the issue of underrepresentation of females in the basic sciences and the promotion of mathematics, for a long time. She started out alone, organizing seminars and workshops raising awareness about gender equity issues at Makerere University. The initiative grew bigger and lead to the birth of UGAWOM – comprising of female mathematicians from universities all over Uganda. 

- We need to create a firm base of fast thinking female scientists, because when you train a woman, you train a nation. Cultural and social barriers are hindering girls from pursuing science, and the myth that math is hard and most suitable for boys is one that needs to be permanently killed.

Betty Nannyonga, network initiator

Among workshop participants is Caroline Taliba, a representative from the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports. She serves as the link between the network and secondary schools in Uganda, making sure that the network activities are in line with ministry policies. She points to the importance of supporting girls and promoting basic sciences already in primary and secondary schools, as they make out the foundation on the more advanced levels. She also stresses the importance to work with, and support, the teachers in motivating and inspiring students.

- I am hoping that the activities of the network will help in building self-confidence of girls by boosting their interest to enhance their performance in learning science and mathematics. I hope it will increase the number of girls taking up science and mathematics at advanced level and reduce the number of female drop-outs at all levels of education in Uganda.

Since these challenges are not unique for Uganda, Betty gathered colleagues from the EAUMP network and other contacts to join forces in a regional Eastern Africa initiative. After three days of intensive meetings far out in Lake Victoria, filled with brainstorming, school visits and teacher interaction, they formed the Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Sciences (EANWoBAS).

   Brainstorming session on the network constitution.

With the belief and slogan “basic sciences for all” the network envisions to be leading in creating gender balance representation in the basic sciences, on all levels from primary to tertiary education. Among other things, they aim to increase the number of women through mentorship for female students, organizing outreach activities and school visits, and opt for gender awareness in teaching. EANWoBAS will help girls in the region to learn about the enormous importance of basic sciences to individual, community and national development.

- On individual basis, we expect more enrollment of girls in science based subjects. We anticipate that these girls will be confident, focused with a positive attitude and determination for success in basic sciences, Betty says.

Workshop participants visited two secondary schools on the island to gather student’s views on mathematical education and inspire them into continuing with basic sciences.