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Kenyan women hit out at male citadels of science

The first women-only college for science and technology has opened in Kenya, where women make up just 20 per cent of the student population, most pushed into studying liberal sciences.

What are boys and girls made of? According to the nursery rhyme, sticks and stones and puppy dog tails [boys]; sugar and spice and everything nice [girls].

And "nice" Kenyan girls don't study engineering. Like Peninah Wanjira, who finished among the top five students in her secondary school. She wanted to be an engineer, but her headmaster prevented her from specialising in science. Too difficult, he told her. Boys whom she consistently outperformed took her place.

"I will never forgive him. He killed my dream," Wanjira, a sociology graduate currently working as a clerk in Nairobi, says bitterly. "Look at what I do: signing and stapling forms all day."

Fortunately, Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology (KWUST), which opened in September 2002, is challenging generations of gender stereotyping and an entrenched culture that favours males at all levels of education.

Offering degrees in computer science and mathematics, the Nairobi-based private university admits 90 students annually who must meet steep fees of $1,220 per term. It emphasises practical skills and research and aims to bridge the gender gap in science and technology.

"We have opted for technological courses because they are the building blocks for development," explains KWUST vice chancellor, Professor Rosalind Mutua. The university hopes to add engineering and medicine to its curricula in the future.

A recent World Bank report, Constructing Knowledge Societies; New Challenges for Tertiary Education, warns that poor countries cannot boost economic growth, reduce poverty and build equitable societies without closing the educational divide – particularly at the university levels – between themselves and wealthier countries.

In Kenyan universities women make up little more than a fifth of the total student population -mostly clustered in liberal arts studies -reflecting a gender gap widened by dropouts through primary and secondary years. At Jomo Kenyatta College of Agriculture and Technology, the only university in Kenya specialising in scientific courses, women make up only 14 per cent of students.

Government figures indicate that while 63 per cent of girls of school-going age enrol every year, only a third complete primary school, compared to half of enrolled boys. Experts say the reality for girls is likely to be worse.

The Ministry of Education attributes the gender disparity in schools to early pregnancies -45 per cent of teenage girls become mothers by the age of 19 – forced or early marriage, a heavier domestic workload for daughters, and son preference in some communities.

Sexism, whether conscious or not, also influences family decisions to keep girls out of school and produces a girl-unfriendly learning environment at home and in the wider community, according to Kenyan researchers Dr Wangoi Njau and Dr Sheila Wamahiu.

Many parents do support education for girls; but sexual violence by some male secondary students -and some teachers [demanding sex for grades] – against young women has also led to girls being withdrawn from school by parents fearing rape, unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection.

Sexism also plagues Kenya's institutions of higher learning.

"Sexual harassment in universities became a big problem when the government introduced self-financing in the 1990s," acknowledges Mutua. Soaring tuition and boarding fees, coupled with decreases in scholarships and student loans, leave some female students, particularly from low income families, "vulnerable to abuse in their struggle for survival," she says.

Female university students have been forced to trade sexual favours for financial support from older men, from single, affluent male students and from lecturers.

Kenyatta University was the first institution to publicly acknowledge the problem in 1993, when it convened a committee to investigate complaints of sexual harassment. In 1998, after two students were raped, a second investigation resulted in the appointment of a female Deputy Director of Student Affairs. Female guards and halls' janitors were also hired.

There have been some victories. In 1999, a 'sex for marks scandal' erupted at Egerton University after female students gave authorities names of lecturers who demanded sexual favours for passing grades. Six lecturers were suspended.

The government has welcomed the establishment of KWUST. "There is need to encourage more women to enrol in these disciplines to increase their employment opportunities and enhance their participation in the country's development," Minister for Science and Technology Gideon Ndambuki asserts.

But increasing female enrolment in tertiary education requires keeping girls in school in the lower grades. A recent parliamentary bill making primary education [grades 1-8] free and compulsory should help reverse the drop out rate among girls.

Kenya is not unique in wanting to get -and keep -women in the sciences. In Britain, according to a 2002 government report, there are 50,000 women science, engineering and technology graduates not working in their respective fields at any one time.

A subsequent report by Susan Greenfield, Oxford University professor of pharmacology and director of the Royal Institution, which specialises in scientific education, highlighted bullying, isolation, low research budgets, family unfriendly policies and lack of support for those returning from maternity leave as difficulties encountered by women choosing scientific careers.

Greenfield said that although women scientists have gone "beyond the bottom-pinching stage" they still face "institutionally sexist" attitudes.

In Kenya not everyone has signed up to the idea of a women-only university such as KWUST. Some male university students see it as a 'feminist attempt' to shield women from fair academic competition, while others argue that gender seclusion is the wrong way to deal with sexual harassment.

"I agree there is sexual harassment in our universities. But I think attention should be focussed on stamping it out rather than creating special institutions for women," says Peter Mwenda, a second year student at Maseno University. "You don't solve a problem by running away from it."

Prospective students of the new university, however, are thrilled with the opportunity to pursue their specialised higher education.

Nancy Wanja, who plans to study computer science, says she had enrolled for a diploma at Kenya Polytechnic but pulled out to study at KWUST.

"Now I will be able to have a degree. After I acquire my B.Sc., I plan to go for a masters elsewhere and then become a university lecturer," Wanja says confidently.

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Panos London

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