Not just for the boys! Women and girls embrace science in Kenya

Many people still think science and maths are subjects for men and boys. In Kenya that has certainly been the case, but now things are changing with a new initiative designed to encourage girls to take up science.

Even in today’s world of perceived equal opportunities it is often thought that science and maths are subjects for men and boys. In Kenya, this is definitely still a popular belief, but in the country’s second biggest city, Mombasa, girls and women are defying the cultural norms by excelling in science disciplines not just at secondary school but right up to university and college level.

The girls chatting and laughing outside the Swahilipot Hub building are all part of the Pwani Teknowgalz organisation. The organisation began in 2015 to inspire girls and women at schools and university to get involved in and make careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Latifah Wanja has been a member of the organisation since she was 20.

‘I was just one of three girls in a class of 30 men’

“When I went to college, I entered a class where I wanted to learn about computers, science and technology. But I was shocked to find that there were only three women and thirty men. That experience showed me that I should work to empower more girls to use technology and help them grow.”

Latifah Wanjah is of the opinion that in today’s world you can use technology to solve any problem you want. On completing secondary school, she went on to develop a mobile phone application known as Usalama Plus Plus Plus. Usalama is a Swahili word meaning “security” and the app is meant to help women and girls feel safer and deal with the daily problems that they face in town.

“The first plus stands for the security feature, the second plus is the geolocation system so that users can locate where garbage collections are because there is a lot of garbage in Mombasa. The third plus is related to using technology like robotics,” Wanjah told DW. “You can install sensors in your home so that if someone breaks in to your house, you would get a notification on your phone.”

Solving everyday problems with technology

Laura Achieng is 17 and also spends a lot of her time at the organization. Just like Wanjah, she too has tried to create a mobile phone app which solves problems she and her friends have been confronted with. Her application is known as “Shine.” It aims to solve the inaccessibility of reading materials and their distribution in schools.

“We were asked to come up with problems facing our communitiesand create solutions. So at that moment we were looking at the accessibility of books for the students and we decided let’s create an app that will enable students to make links to business people who are dealing with the distribution of books to the schools,” explains Achieng. “We called it ‘Shine’ because we wanted all students to be able to shine. We haven’t brought it to the market yet because the technology is still evolving.” Laura explains that she hopes to modify the app and add more technological features. But the experience of building the app has helped build her self-confidence too.

Young women and girls all sit together at a table with laptops in fornt of them (DW/D. Wanyonyi)

At the tech hub Swahilipot, the women have created their own space to work in

Bridging the gender gap with mentors

By 3 p.m. the lecture class is filling up on the first floor of the building. The lectures are for female students only and there are 15 girls arranging chairs and waiting for the lecturer. Aisha Abdul-Qadir is an officer at the Pwani Teknowgalz. She says a lack of female mentors in scientific disciplines has posed a major challenge in Kenya. Without positive examples, she says, many girls are discouraged before they can even discover if they are talented in the scientific field.

“In Africa there are a lot of opportunities that are available to women in the fields of science and technology, but unfortunately, girls who are passionate about pursuing scientific careers lack female mentors who can guide them through their career life. Before they came here, the majority of girls felt like software development, coding or anything to do with programming was a field meant only for men.”

That is why she and her group set up Pwani Teknowgalz, to bridge that gender gap and create a platform where girls are able to interact, share experiences and mentor each other at the same time. The project has proved fruitful. Ruth Kaveke is the executive director of Pwani Teknowgalz and is here to give the lecture today. Kaveke herself is a web developer. She says the intimidation she experienced from male colleagues during her internship inspired her to set up the organization.

‘Ruth, can you really do this?’ 

“When I was at university I went for an internship. I knew what the company wanted. I was familiar with all the software and tools they used. But even so, the first thing my supervisor asked me was ‘Ruth can you really do this?’ I was shocked. I kept quiet and told him to give me time and I will be up there with everyone else,” remembers Kaveke. Luckily I was very good and they eventually assigned me to supervise other interns who had started before me. When I asked around, my friends said they were experiencing similar problems, so we decided to come together to train these young girls.” Now, Ruth explains, some of their trainees are able to earn money with their skills.  They create websites for people and their success is growing.

Women and girls sit in front of their laptops and watch Ruth Kaveke explaining something on a whiteboard (DW/D. Wanyonyi)

The young women and girls profit from the expertise and support of Ruth Kaveke

In 2017, Ruth was among 100 women from Africa, Central and South Asia and the Middle East selected to fly to the United States to participate in “TechWomen,” a five-week program that offers educational and professional empowerment. She was placed to intern with Mozilla, the internet giant which makes the Mozilla Firefox browser, and said she learnt so much, particularly about web security. In San Francisco she saw female engineers who were pregnant but were still turning up at the office and showing that women can do everything men can do. That’s what  what she wants to make sure that girls in Mombasa believe too, through her organization.

Pwani Teknowgalz, has so far worked with 180 girls in secondary schools and four universities in Mombasa, and reached more than 400 girls and young women in science. Slowly, as more women work in these fields, they are reporting that change is happening, for the better. But they all know, much more needs to be done.

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