Building an Equitable Society

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As a physical and virtual melting pot of academics and students from all manner of backgrounds and countries, academic institutions have an opportunity to not only be a safe space regardless of identity, gender, or background – but also a guiding light that can help individuals be more socially-just and drive change in their respective communities “back home”.

With this goal in mind, the SVAI and #ITSNOTOK movement hosted the third installation of the African Universities Gender Equality Forum and invited academia and students from across the African continent, to highlight initiatives aimed at raising awareness about the rights of women, their ability to achieve equality and, most importantly, to bring about change.

AUGE Forum

Many of the initiatives presented were also shaped by the individuals’ own experiences, each making a lasting impact in the fight for equality: from mentorship and digital skills training, to giving widows a voice as well as starting a clothing brand to advocate for African women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Gender Equality Forum

For Prof Evelyn Chiloane-Tsoka, advancement of women has been a journey that started when she herself was marginalised. This experience prompted her to start an informal mentoring framework for young female academics in her department (Applied Management) at the University of South Africa (UNISA), as well as her own faith based organisation.

Says Evelyn: “At that time it was very rare to think out of the box and have black female academics in the space of faith leadership. I did not want to see what happened to me recurring to our young vibrant and talented women, so my mentoring was geared towards young talent. As they graduated scholarly with Masters and Doctoral degrees, they became visible and gauge a greater momentum to position themselves. We were fighting for space to lead and it was the women themselves who started to mobilise and encourage others.”

Another case in point is Kate Mwambo from the University of Buea in Cameroon, who is a passionate advocate for more women and girls in STEM. She was also spurred to action because of her own experience as one of only two women out of 40 students in her Petroleum Engineering class.

Says Kate: “I have seen and experienced, first hand, how poorly represented women are in fields like Engineering. So many times, we were belittled during our studies until we showed everyone by delivering outstanding academic results. Now I want to lend my voice as far as gender inequality is concerned and, through my actions, I hope to become a source of inspiration to many African women and girls.”

This prompted her, together with five other women from different fields of STEM, to start working on a STEMiK clothing brand to advocate for women and girls in STEM in Africa. Proceeds from the clothing sales will be used to sponsor first generation females from low income communities to attend university. She also started mentoring other women at state universities studying Computer Engineering.

Another rapidly growing divide that exists today is the digital gender gap – one that Priscilla Serwaah Gyasi, a postgraduate student at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, hopes to bridge by applying her knowledge and skillset.

She has done this through her work at Kumasi Hive, a tech innovation hub, where she led a Bridge the Gap initiative for the past four years, developing a critical mass of competent and skilled female workers, innovators, and entrepreneurs through hands-on training in digital technologies.

The training is cohort-based and focused on digital skills and business development training for females, especially undergraduate women. Currently the project has trained over 83 undergraduate female students; 38 in Biomedical Engineering, 22 from Computer Engineering, 10 from the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies and 13 at the Computer Science Department.

Of course, the concept of inequalities is not only confined within the narrow space of academia but broadly experienced in every other aspect of society, where most women are side-lined regardless of their roles, votes and economic contributions.

A case in point is the Widowhood Issues in South Africa (WISA) community project, which have been at the centre of Dr Sizakele Danke’s drive for equality. The project and associated research culminated in an annual Widowhood Research Indaba Roundtable and commemoration of International Widow’s Day, which started at Unisa in 2019.

The purpose of the Widowhood Research Indaba series is to gather likeminded people who are ready to uncover, interrogate and engage in dialogue around a topic that is often an unspoken reality of many silent and silenced voices of widows.  

The research project, entitled ‘Exploring widowhood issues in marginalised communities in Gauteng: Engaged scholarship intervention’, has also been identified as one of the flagship projects for the University of South Africa.

Says Sizakele “Widowhood is a sensitive and contentious issue with conflicting views and practices; at the centre of it all is often a woman who is made to endure vilification and public scrutiny at a time when she is vulnerable. The most important part of the research indaba series is that we get to hear about the first hand lived experiences of widows.”

Clearly the road to gender equality remains long and ever-shifting, but the initiatives shared at this event, give us hope that we’re headed in the right direction.

Through creating platforms such as the African Universities Gender Equality Forum, the SVAI provides an invaluable space for academia and students to add their voices and actions, consciously helping to reduce GBV and increase gender equality beyond the classroom and campus… ultimately contributing to the betterment of society.

Gender equality, after all, is a precondition for an equitable society.