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[KIGALI] A project initiated by the US government to empower women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is now being expanded to Sub-Saharan Africa countries.

The innovative public-private partnership called TechWomen, which began in 2011, has been sending emerging women leaders in technology from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States for month-long mentorships with women mentors working at the greater Silicon Valley area. The mentors also visit the countries.

According to a statement from the US Department of State, a team of 30 mentors from the United States, representing 23 companies, were in Rwanda last month (2-7 February). They collaborated through workshops and visits with local stakeholders, including government officials, non-profit organisations and girls schools that promote STEM.

“TechWomen is an opportunity for women — both in the United States and throughout the world — to create connections that inspire ideas and innovation,”
Benjamin Roode, US Embassy, Rwanda.

Benjamin Roode, acting public affairs officer at the US Embassy, Rwanda, says TechWomen encourages, supports and empowers women engaged in the technology industry from the Middle East and Africa.

“TechWomen is an opportunity for women — both in the United States and throughout the world — to create connections that inspire ideas and innovation,” he tells SciDev.Net.

Roode adds that it will increase the trade capacity of the participating countries, promote economic advancement and support the global commitment of the United States to advance the rights and participation of women and girls by enabling them to reach their full potential in the technology industry.

Among the Sub-Saharan Africa countries that have been included in the mentoring initiative are Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

Roode notes that in Sub-Saharan Africa, traditionally women have had limited access to the STEM fields.

“When only a small percentage of women enter the field, it’s harder for women in general to flourish in it,” says Roode. “With women illustrating success in these fie

lds and serving as models to other women and girls, as they have in this programme in Rwanda, other women follow these career paths.”

Akaliza Gara, a Rwanda-based information and communication technology (ICT) consultant who addressed the 30 mentors, agrees.

“One of the challenges for young women and girls pursuing a career in ICT has been the lack of female role models,” Gara notes. She adds that while women in Sub-Saharan Africa have started embracing STEM disciplines, they still need to be encouraged by governments through funding of their science projects.

According to Guillaine Neza, a Rwandan software developer and a mentee of TechWomen, the project exposes women and girls to technological issues early to make them understand how technology can be used to improve their livelihoods.

“Through such mentorship and exchange, TechWomen strengthens participants’ professional capacity, increases mutual understanding between key networks of professionals, and expands girls’ interest in STEM careers,” Neza tells SciDev.Net.

Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT, says the existing bottlenecks of women in ICT industry have been lack of exposure to technology and its use for a good cause.

Nsengimana adds that it is the Rwandan government’s priority to enable women and girls realise their dreams by making the web accessible to them.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.