Q&A: ‘Fear of laughter’ keeps girls quiet at school

Masai girl in class. Copyright: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Lack of girls in maths classes prompts mentoring initiative
  • Women in science should reach out and inspire girls, says biostatistician
  • Self-esteem, culture of inclusion ‘crucial to elevate girls’ voices

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Growing up in one of Blantyre’s densely populated townships, Halima Twabi saw that girls were hesitant to speak up or ask questions during class. By the time she was at university, there were only a handful of female students studying mathematics. This inspired Twabi and her friends to establish the mentoring initiative Malawi Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Twabi draws on her experience as a biostatistician, maternal and child health researcher, and lecturer in statistics at the University of Malawi, to inspire new generations of researchers. Along with her work with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, which recently launched a Malawi chapter, Twabi is taking on the major barriers — such as child marriage — that stand in the way of girls’ future careers in science.

Halima Twabi. Photo Credit: Charles Pensulo

What is it like for a girl to grow up in Malawi and how challenging is it to excel in education and science careers?

There are a lot of challenges that one comes across, especially if you are going to schools that are co-education, because you are in a group where there are both males and females. I don’t know what belief we have — it could be a cultural thing — that girls just feel like they can’t [raise their voice] when they’re in such a group. These are some of the challenges that not only take place in a class but it also happens within the society. When you’re playing with your friends, both males and females, you’ll find that the females will always take the weak role.

For me I feel like it’s a cultural aspect because you’ll find there’ll be girls who want to speak out and they’ll be deemed as being noisy or talkative. And it’s the same in class. So, there are some girls who’ll be brave enough to stand up to say ‘Sir or madam I did not hear what you said, may you repeat?’, but then there’ll be those who feel like, ‘If I say something and it’s wrong … people will laugh at me.’

You initiated a programme called Malawi Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics to instil the love of science in girls. Tell us more about it.

With some of my friends, we had noted the [small] numbers of female students … we had just joined the faculty of science. So, we [said], I think we can do something about it. We did start small … we said, ‘Why don’t we start from those in the primary and secondary schools, because those are the ones who need exposure.’ It could be that they have not been exposed to role models and they just need to see fellow females just like them — we might be a bit older, but just like them — and tell them what we are currently doing. They also see other alternatives in terms of career paths.

We have seen huge improvement and success stories. We have seen girls who come up to us and say … ‘At that time, I did not know that there were these science careers, but now … I’m under the faculty of science.’ We have done a lot of school outreach activities. We promote the love for science using locally available materials.

One of the things that impedes girls’ progress in this country is child marriage. What do you think should be done?

Child marriage is a very big problem in the country. When I was in form four and I went to my home village, my dad was informing them ‘She’s done with her form four,’ and the first thing that people [said], ‘So, when is she getting married?’. I was 15 years old, so for them the first thing that comes into mind is the marriage aspect. And of course, when you go to the village now you find that small girls, they’re married now. Previously the parents would have a role — it could be something that is still ongoing — however, nowadays you’ll find that the girls themselves are choosing to go into marriage.

I feel it’s still that lack of self-esteem, especially in the rural areas. Lack of role models to tell them that it’s not just about marriage, marriage is not the ultimate goal. We need to ensure that we teach our girls to have self-esteem, to be confident and believe in their capabilities. I would want to commend chiefs, like [Theresa] Kachindamoto [of the Dedza District in central Malawi], she’s an icon because she stands firm within her village to say, ‘If I will find a [child] marriage, I’m going to break it.’ That’s what we need. The next thing is talk to the parents and tell them that, this is not the age to get married.

What advice do you have for girls?

I want to encourage women and girls who are interested in the sciences, that it’s something that one can do. We have seen a lot of women who are doing advanced science careers. But also, for those who are already in that field, to take that role to engage with the community. That is essential. If you go out there and tell [young women] your story, they’ll relate and say, ‘It’s possible that if you go through this, you can still end up being successful.’

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.