On 12th May 2021, the Building Learning Foundations programme held several events to mark International Day for Girls in Mathematics. The event was celebrated under the theme, “Empower girls in Mathematics, Start Early”. The day is celebrated annually around the world and seeks to inspire women to celebrate their achievements in mathematics and to encourage an open, welcoming and inclusive work environment in mathematics-related fields.
The events included a virtual webinar and a girls mathematics challenge competition at school level in five districts.
The panel discussion facilitated by Faith Mbabazi BLF’s Communication Manager saw contributions from Dr. Marie-Christine Gasingirwa, Applied Sciences Analyst at Rwanda’s Higher Education Council, Marie Chantal Bizimana, BLF Sector Learning and Jean Marie Vianney Munyaneza, BLF’s and Gender Specialist for BLF, who each spoke to the various barriers and challenges to girls engaging with Mathematical sciences as well as the necessary efforts that are underway to address these issues.
Despite gender parity at primary level in Rwanda, girls are consistently underrepresented in STEM subjects at upper secondary and tertiary levels. Any type of underrepresentation inevitably leads to missed opportunities and the loss of mathematical talent – at both an individual and national level. The causes of such underrepresentation, according to our panelists, lie predominantly in a variety of barriers which continue to prevent girls from developing a strong and well-supported passion for mathematics from an early age.
In her remarks, Dr Marie Christine said the present barriers are entrenched deep down in families and that for this to change, it’s important to deal with the family structure. She explained that why barriers still exist despite strategies in place, is due to the fact that resilience among humans is very difficult and that the desired changes can’t happen overnight.
“But with policies in place and continued support for the girls, change will happen eventually. They will learn from the women in the space, their passion will encourage them. Currently we have more opportunities, if we had them back then, we would have more women in mathematics,” she said.
Gasingirwa noted that the more we have all people empowered the better the development will be.
“What we need to understand is how relevant mathematics is on every level, this is why it matters that we introduce this to the girls earlier in life. In Rwanda, we want to go much faster but there are still obstacles; these may be conscious or unconscious, but there is progress.”
“What is remaining is for people to remove the stereotypes that keep blocking progress. We want to fly because we are in a changing world, we need to be equipped with tools, we need to be bold, feel empowered academically and be able to apply the knowledge that we have acquired,” she added.
Chantal Bizimana, Sector Learning Facilitator for the Building Learning Foundations programme, mentioned the case with the learning process that at times doesn’t consider challenges girls face in accessing education especially those in the science field.
“Girls are sometimes not quick when learning mathematics but when a teacher has the right techniques they can excel just like boys. It’s important for teachers to encourage them and ensure that they are not lagging behind. Teachers should be supportive too and help them overcome that fear of science subjects believing that it’s meant for boys alone,” she explained.
Jean Marie Vianney Munyaneza, a gender and safeguarding specialist with BLF revealed that what needs to be done is to address the existing inequalities between men and women, boys and girls.
“When you dig deep, you see that these differences are rooted in the habits and attitudes of society. It makes it difficult for the girls to be on equal ground with their male counterparts. These negative stereotypes, unconscious biases, issues of sexual abuse, is what affects their mental health and consequently their health and performance in school”, he observed.
“Girls often report lower confidence than boys do in their math and science abilities as a result of the cultural belief that science and math are male domains. This affects girls to offer mathematics as a subject and for even those who have taken it, to continue performing.”
Munyaneza hence challenged women and men to defy their social norms and empower both boys and girls.
“BLF has adopted a gender transformative approach at all levels of programme implementation. Our approach works at intersections of gender equality, diversity and inclusion. This is what we hope to help counteract these misconceptions.”
He also mentioned the need to expose both boys and girls to successful role models in the science field.
“A combination of general and goal-targeted interventions which foster supportive, stereotype-free learning environment will build girls’ interest and confidence in maths.”
Schools and communities can also be proactive in exposing pupils to successful female role models in STEM, especially if there are any from the school alumni, while also implementing a combination of general and girl-targeted interventions and extracurricular activities to foster a supportive, stereotype-free environment to build girls’ interests and confidence.