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Zimbabwe, December 2014: Girls making connections and challenging the boundaries of science education

© Richard Nyamanhindi/UNICEF2014
In Zimbabwe as in other countries in the region, the deficits in ‘technical socialization’ leads girls to avoid science professions, even when they have an affinity for mathematics and science subjects at high school level.

By Richard Nyamanhindi

From behind the walls of a number of humble-looking buildings in Harare, in a residential neighbourhood of Arcadia, near Zimbabwe’s fast-paced economic hub, comes a steady, low clinking sound of science apparatus. It emanates from an Advanced Level class at Morgan High School. The class is full of avid learners immersed in scientific theory and hands-on practice.

The class has a sizeable number of girls diligently carrying out their experiments – an unusual scene around the country’s secondary schools. The girls are just a small fraction of an emerging generation of to be women scientists, following the distribution of 2,449 science kits in the first quarter of 2014 to all secondary schools in Zimbabwe.

The Zim-Science Project is receiving support from the Education Development Fund (EDF) – a multi-donor pool of funds, which is channeled through the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in partnership with UNICEF.

The genesis of the Zim-Science project was motivated by the lack of up-to-date science equipment in schools, shortage of science teachers, inappropriate teaching methodologies and partly due to the conspicuous apathy towards science and technology education demonstrated by girls in Zimbabwe.

“Before we received the science kits, students just used to memorize concepts they did not understand,” says Ms. Jacqueline Levi a science teacher at Morgan High School. “They did not do any practicals and had no real-world experience of what they were learning.”

The Science Head of Department at the school, Mrs. S. Hungwa also added that “prior to receiving the science kits, science teaching had been reduced to theory without any practicals. We used to procure a bit of science equipement towards the end of the year for practical examinations which is a requirement from the Examination Council, but now with the availability of the science kits we recently received from UNICEF students are now doing practicals well before sitting for their final exams.”

She also noted that, despite most girls passing their primary school level, an alarming number is still forced to quit secondary school as a result of soaring financial burdens and social pressures. This has further resulted in a few number of girls proceeding to do science subjects at ‘A’ Level.

Figures from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicate that, despite constituting more than half of the population in Zimbabwe, women make up only 4.5 per cent of the country’s university student population studying sciences.

Through the Zim-Science Project UNICEF and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education wants to demolish gender myths and attract more girls into science and related fields. There is a belief that boys are smarter than girls and science is so hard that girls cannot cope with it.

“Men in Zimbabwe and Africa in general still dominate science, technology, engineering and maths and this gender imbalance starts from the earliest schooling years,” says Mr. Bernard Muchenga the Headmaster of Morgan High School.

The low numbers of girls in science and subsequent challenges they face upon entry into scientific fields can also be attributed to gender socialization that exists in Zimbabwe. “In early childhood, girls are discouraged from playing with machines, which are seen as suitable for boys only. As boys are exposed to tools and nuts and bolts, they are introduced to technical and scientific terms and elements at an early age. Girls, too, learn to act in a gender appropriate manner and become hesitant to deviate from these images,” says Mr. Muchenga.

In Zimbabwe as in other countries in the region, the deficits in ‘technical socialization’ leads girls to avoid science professions, even when they have an affinity for mathematics and science subjects at high school level.

At Morgan High School, as with other schools around Zimbabwe, the socialization is clearly shown when one looks at the enrolment pattern which is skewed in favour of boys. The currently ‘A’ classes have a total of 27 boys studying Chemistry at and only 8 girls. In Physics there are 17 boys and one girl. 

“As girls we are often steered away from science and are taught to regard it as unfeminine. We are usually socialized being told that careers, such as nursing and teaching, are more appropriate for girls, says Cynthia Nyengera the only ‘A’ Level Physics student at the school.

Despite the fact that many communities in Zimbabwe still teach their children that science is for boys, the Zim-Science Project is working towards correcting this anomaly. Changing social behaviours however is not any easy feat. This is particularly so in communities where women struggle to access resources and where households with more female members are at greater risk of poverty.

In addition, Zimbabwe still has a lot of cases where if a family has to make a choice of either sending a girl or a boy child to school then most still believe it’s better to educate the boy. With such stereotypical ideas about girl’s abilities and potential still strongly entrenched in attitudes adopted by parents, teachers, and peer groups – there is a strong need to encourage communities and schools to embolden girls to take up science as there is nothing transcendent about it. If this is not done, then these socio-cultural stereotypes will continue to provide justification for girl’s exclusion or absence from science.

 

 
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