Letting girls face sciences head on


By Dyson Mthawanji:


A boy and a girl may be born on the same day and time. But as they grow up, it would be observed that the boy is more advantaged as far as success in education is concerned. The difference mostly starts at home where society thinks a girl should come second as far as education opportunities are concerned. For some parents, their priority when paying school fees is a boy not a girl.

This has demoralised many girls. Their frustration makes them even think that some things are for boys and not girls. This is seen in the girls’ interest to go for science subjects at secondary or science related programmes at university.


Chancellor College (Chanco) Vice-Principal, Samson Sajidu, expressed concern over small numbers of female students who go for science subjects when selected to the college.

“Most of the applicants who go for science programmes are mainly male students as female students shun the programmes,” he said.

In Malawi, female students’ access, success and retention in mathematics and science continue to be major areas of concern throughout secondary school and higher education. This is happening in spite of a number of gender equity policies and initiatives that encourage females to pursue careers within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).


Enrolment of female students in Stem at tertiary levels has been an area of focus for the Ministry of Education, as evidenced by the Policy and Investment Framework of 2000—2012. This policy stated: “Tertiary institutions will be required to increase the percentage of students enrolled in the natural sciences and technology field from 25 percent to 60 percent of the total full-time student enrolment by 2012”.

The policy added: “Tertiary institutions shall take appropriate measures with the aim of increasing the proportion of female students in non-traditional areas from 28 percent to 40 percent of female enrolment by 2012”.

This is January 2020 and the country has not yet achieved this dream.

In spite of this important policy, one of the major problems faced by the education system in Malawi is the gender disparity in access and achievement at all levels of education. This gender disparity, or gap, is most pronounced at tertiary levels in science-related programmes.

For example, in the 2009 University of Malawi selection, 41 percent of the students selected into mathematics and science programmes were female. However, if those selected into nursing programmes (which are traditionally female careers) are excluded the female representation drops to 35 percent.

Some education commentators say the climate in a mathematics or science classroom has constituted a barrier to women in Stem subjects, among several factors that females face. While there have been some improvements in the atmosphere in science and other Stem subject classrooms, studies show that “many Stem fields are still characterised by a ‘chilly climate’ that is unwelcoming to girls in high school and young women in college”.

It is also reported that the “gender gap is likely reinforced by the fact that secondary school science teachers spend significantly more time addressing the boys in the classroom” leaving girls watching from the terraces.

Though there are more textbooks that feature both sexes and also more teachers who are aware of the gender divide, female students often feel outnumbered, intimidated and isolated in their classes.

The Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) is putting more efforts to motivate girls to have passion for Stem. On August 13 2019, Must held the fourth edition of the Girls Science Camp that attracted over 120 secondary school female students.

The university initiated the Girls Science Camp after noting that most girls in secondary school were shunning Stem subjects leading to low female enrolment for Stem-related programmes in higher education institutions.

Likewise, Malawi National Library Services (MNLS) has been putting particular effort on motivating girls to pursue Stem subjects. Last year MNLS assembled school-going girls at the library’s headquarters in Lilongwe to inspire them to a reading culture as well as encouraging them to pursue Stem subjects.

When Must selected its first group of students, it had just nine percent females and much as the figures have now gone up, they are still lower than those for boys.

MALATA—They can be what they want in life

Must Vice-Chancellor Address Malata said: “As such, through the Girls Science Camp we want to inspire and motivate these girls to love Stem subjects, enrol in Stem programmes in universities and make careers out of Stem-related fields.

“The fact that globally and in Malawi, we have women who have studied and excelled in Stem means stories we hear that Stem subjects are for boys only are a lie. I want to assure girls that they can be what they want in life, including making a career in the Stem field.”

This camp only targets secondary school students but the problem starts in primary schools, hence the need for other stakeholders to join in and bring interventions at primary school level and in communities.

The low numbers for girls in Stem is just unfilled gaps that exist in society. Women are lagging behind in many areas. Apart from Stem, women lag behind in financial inclusion and in political and management positions.

A recent study by Finmark Trust found that Malawi has one of the highest levels of financial exclusion for women at 59 percent, against 53 percent for men.

The Finmark Trust 2019 Measuring Progress of Financial Inclusion in the Southern African Development Commission (Sadc) study found that as of April 2018, women constituted one-third of subscribers of mobile money agents.

Therefore, it is interesting to see the private sector coming in to inject efforts in giving secondary school girls a Stem push because it is the beginning of filling all other gender gaps.

For example, Standard Bank has been at the forefront motivating girls to dream of the banking sector which requires a good background and application of mathematics. Speaking during the mentorship at Chanco, then acting Chief Executive Officer for Standard Bank, Temwani Simwaka, said it was high time girls understood the importance of technology in development.

She said there was a big gap in representation of women in technology hence secondary school girls should work hard in Stem subjects to fill the gap.

“The future of our country depends on technology. Where are our girls and women in the much needed spaces of leadership in Malawi?” queried Simwaka.

She therefore said there was need for role models to visit girls in secondary schools across the country to encourage and motivate them so that those gaps that exist can be closed. Standard Bank started mentoring girls from different primary schools as one way of encouraging them to concentrate on science subjects to excel in life.

Sajidu concurred with Simwaka on the lack of role models as being one of the factors pushing female students to shun science programmes.

He said Chanco, through female staff on Information, Communications and Technology, initiated the idea of inviting girls from various secondary schools so that they can be inspired.

Malawi cannot talk about development without paying special attention to gender equality mainly by encouraging girls to go for Stem. It is working elsewhere in the world and we do not have to be left behind.

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