Women scientists ‘have key role in development’

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South Africa is to set up an advisory group to ensure that women’s interests are adequately addressed in all spheres of science and technology policy, according to Bridgett Mabandla, deputy minister in the country’s Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST).
Addressing a meeting on the opening day (26 August) of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation, being held in Johannesburg as part of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), Mabandla emphasised the need to incorporate gender issues into development planning.

“Sustainable development is a complex process, and technology is a key element in that process,” she said. “So it is important for us to focus on the implications of gender equity for technology, ensuring that technology policies are gender sensitive.”

Mabandla added that the so-called ‘reference group’ that the government is planning to establish would help to ensure that this goal was met, and that it was important that the group was not marginalised by decision-makers.

“The reference group will be at the centre of policy making, and will be responsible for carrying out detailed critiques of policies emanating even from our science councils and other similar bodies.”

She said that the result “could impact on the overall policy and direction of where we go with science and technology in our country”. The creation of the new advisory group is in line with her ministry’s commitment “to involving women in policy formulation, and in the design, development and implementation of technology, to make sure that women’s concerns are taken seriously”.

Lydia Makhubu, president of the Third World Organisation for Women in Science — which organised the meeting — and vice-chancellor of the University of Swaziland, said that the failure of the international science and technology system to fully engage women was depriving the development process of a valuable input.

The role of women is particularly significant in pursuing policies of sustainable development, she said, since women have traditionally been intimately involved in fields such as health, energy, and food production, which lie at the centre of this process.

Because of their closeness to family and children, women have a unique approach to science and its application that emphasises the human dimension of science and technology, and its value in improving the quality of life and the empowerment of humankind, Makhubu said.

She added that the fact that a high proportion of women who entered scientific careers chose to do so in the life sciences “must be considered a strength in the context of the problems of the developing world”.

Makhubu also pointed out that women have been centrally involved in the transmission of culture, given their close involvement with the education of children, and have thus been key transmitters of values and norms from generation to generation.

“Is the integration of science into culture not a prerequisite for bringing science closer to society?” she asked. “Can this accumulated involvement not be transmitted into a modern plan of action in which women are closely involved?”

Makhubu said that women “must be in the vanguard of the integration of science and culture, of policy-making for research, and of the creation of a future in which human needs form the basis of scientific and technological endeavour, in harmony with concern for the environment.”

There is therefore a major need to reconsider the role of women in the scientific enterprise, Makhubu said. “It is only through this that we will be able to devise viable sustainable development strategies.”

Elizabeth Mzumngaile, research and development co-ordinator for the Zambian Association of Women in Science and Technology, said that woman had a major role to play in building the successful economies of the future, as these will be those that can develop science and technology and apply it in a sustainable manner.

“Women are major conduits in the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another,” said Mzumngaile. “Unfortunately their scientific skills remain under-developed and under-utilised compared to their male counterparts”.

In African universities, for example, women make up only 34 per cent of those studying biological sciences, 13 per cent in chemistry, 11 per cent in food science and nutrition, 10 per cent in medicine, and only 6 per cent in agriculture.

“These figures illustrate the significant under-representation of women in science and technology, even in fields relating to the life sciences,” she said.

Marietta Dlamini, senior lecturer, university of Swaziland, said that the poor participation of women in activities related to science and technology was “no longer acceptable”. Girls continue to face numerous obstacles in schools, she said, the most recent being the impact of AIDS in many countries in Southern Africa.

“This has negatively affected the performance and representation of girls, because they have to take care of their parents at home, and have to be absence from school for many days,” she said.

© SciDev.Net 2002

See also:

Department of Science and Technology — South Africa
Forum on Science Technology and Innovation
Third World Organisation for Women in Science

Photo credit: WHO/P. Virot