Rwanda: Girls in ICT Day - Call to Address Existing Gender Gap in Stem Fields

The advancement of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is crucial for innovation and development. Yet women are still underrepresented in this field despite making up half of the country's population.

Every year on April 22, the world marks Girls in ICT Day, an opportunity to push for the promotion of more girls and women in science and technology fields.

Girls in ICT Day is a global movement aimed at inspiring and motivating girls and women to consider STEM subjects in their academic endeavours.

According to UNESCO, fewer than 30 per cent of researchers are women and only just 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.

In Rwanda, there have been various initiatives such as TechKobwa, Miss Geek, and WeCode programmes to encourage more women to join sciences and these have yielded progress.

A 2019 report on the status of gender equality in Rwanda shows significant progress for the number of girls enrolling in STEM.

Nonetheless, there is still untapped opportunity hence the need to do more.

Where is the problem?

Tendai Murahwa, gender expert with a focus on mainstreaming gender in the private sector and currently based in Rwanda, says there are multiple layers to the challenges in addressing the gender gap in ICT education and employment.

Firstly, Muragwa says, there are foundational ones to do with societal attitudes and perceptions to computer science as a subject for example, which are largely considered to be more for boys than for girls.

Some of these attitudes and beliefs can be addressed through more awareness-raising on the employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for women as well men, in the ICT sector, Murahwa says.

"The other challenges are more structural. Like other subjects in the STEM field, ICT education also requires additional resources including desktop computers and internet connectivity which are not readily available in some communities. This could be one of the reasons why ICT is not yet part of the standard education curriculum in some countries."

Willy Shema, the Executive Director, Miss Career Africa Foundation, a programme that empowers young women professionals, entrepreneurs and aspiring students in different ways says that considering where women and girls are in ICT, they are doing great in terms of performance both in school and at workplaces.

Women and girls have proven their abilities, and many dare to venture into ICT related businesses that contribute to their growth and job creation for others. The challenges however still prevail, Shema notes.

"There is still that mindset that ICT is meant for men only. Also, there are other obstacles such as limited access to internet, inadequate ICT centres, limited information especially to women and girls in rural areas," he says.

Way forward

The Africa Girls Can Code Initiative (AGCCI) being jointly implemented by UN Women, the African Union, Economic Commission for Africa and the International Telecommunication Union is one of many programmes across the continent that are giving girls access to ICT and coding.

However, Murahwa notes that women and girls in Africa have relatively lower access to the internet compared to males.

"It is noted that the majority of people access the internet on their mobile phones, so it is important to track the gender gap in mobile internet access. In addition to all the other benefits of internet access, it improves the flow of information and helps in bringing ICT into the mainstream, both as a subject and career choice for girls."

According to the Mobile Gender Gap Report for 2020, about 54% of women, compared to about 68% of men in low to medium income countries of Africa, are now accessing the internet on their mobile phones.

This signifies a huge improvement in women's access to the internet over the last three years, even though much still needs to be done.

To continue addressing these challenges, Shema notes that efforts should be put into establishing more accessible ICT centres, ICT clubs, mentorship programs to awaken women and girls, and engaging them more.

Rita Clemence Mutabazi, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Training, Institutional Development and Research at Rwanda Polytechnic, says women and girls need role model exposure through systematic career guidance.

"Also, there is need to ensure adequate and safe school environment at universities and polytechnics. Gender Institutional policies should be established to mainstream gender responsive actions through teaching and learning activities," Mutabazi notes.

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