Africa, Development, Uganda, Women

‘Do the science but it must be communicated’ – Dr. Florence Mutonyi D’ujanga on science and lessons from Stephen Hawking.

Uganda has made strides over years to increase access to education for all citizens. As of 2015, the adult literacy rate for Uganda stood at 73.8 %. Historic imbalances and cultural attitudes have long locked women and girls out of formal education. Measures like free primary education and awareness of importance of equal access to education opportunities for both girls and boys worked to improve enrolment at primary level. However the enrolment and retention of girls in school beyond primary school remains a challenge. Some reports show that only 22 out of the 100 girls aged 13 to 18 years access secondary education which leaves a wider gap even with the existence of the limited Universal Secondary Education.

The percentage of girls joining secondary is lower than that of boys and females without formal education double males.  To compound the kind of challenges still faced, recent figures from Uganda Bureau of Statistics show that 25 percent of adolescents age 15-19 in Uganda have begun childbearing.

Given this background it is an even more uphill task when looking into the women and girls in science in Uganda. Science education itself remains limited to a few due to structural challenges in the education system as well as existing attitudes and stereotypes.  Women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science not just in Uganda but across the world.

According to a UN study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%. Today, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women.  Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 percent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).

The UN designated February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. On March 27, Kweeta Uganda and Fundi Bots hosted Dr. Florence Mutonyi D’ujanga, Associate Professor at Makerere University Department of Physics who shared her life story and efforts to bring more girls in STEM- science, technology, engineering and math studies.

“I wanted to go to the moon.”

Dr. Mutonyi-D’ujanga came of age in the 1960s. She remembers vividly the news and talk that followed when the Apolo 11 landed on the moon. You couldn’t miss the excitement in her eyes.   “Americans were going to the moon. I was so fascinated as a young girl. We could see the moon and we were wondering how they did that,” she said, My father was a secondary school teacher and I told her I also want to go to the moon like those bazungus (white people).”

Her father didn’t dampen her spirit. He told young Mutonyi-D’ujanga that it was only possible if she did attend her arithmetic classes and excelled.  Dújanga speaks of her  English teacher father as number one supporter of her dreams. She shared also on her journey through secondary school where often as a young girl in a mixed school the divides can easily seem to be natural- the boys do the sciences and girls do arts. For Prof. D’ujanga this didn’t last long before she got back to her dream. She connects this initial feeling of failure at sciences to societal attitudes even among teachers.

“If a girl takes science they say she wants to be masculine. At that point of growth you don’t want to be told that you are masculine.” Prof. D’ujanga was lucky to still have her father cheering on and questioning her failure at science in that particular adolescent phase.

“My father asked how come your science study isn’t working? Are you still going to the moon?” This kind of follow up and challenge from her father pushed her to see herself, a girl as having a rightful place in a science class.

From secondary school and to Makerere University, Prof. D’ujanga was always the minority- three or four young women in a class of over 30 boys in science classes.

“It is not mostly because it’s difficult but it is the lack of role models that many girls not taking up physics & other sciences in Uganda,” she says.

She came back to lecture at Makerere and she has been here for a total of 44 years. She also headed the Physics Department at one time.

“The perception people get when I tell them I am teaching at Makerere then when I say physics, everyone goes wao. When people exclaim like that it shows a certain perception may be you are not normal,” she says.

Prof D’ujanga says that emphasizes the gap that still exists in women in science but also the cultural attitudes towards a woman’s ability. Through the Association of University women, Prof D’ujanga and others carry out outreach work in schools to encourage girls to take on science studies and take science out of academic circles. For a long time she was  the sole female at Makerere Physics depart.

“I had to fight for two women to get in the department.”

Dr. D’ujanga might not have made it to the moon yet but her current research is in Space Physics which she hopes to advance in the country.

Dr D’ujanga also reflected on lessons from Professor Stephen Hawking, world renown British Physicist who passed on in March: “Being resilient-looking at his life he was positive, he didn’t stop at the lab work, whatever he did he publicized. Even when he lost his voice he still gave a voice. He taught us that you should do the science but it must be communicated.”

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