Aida Opoku-Mensah is the Director of ICTs, Science and Technology Division of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), based in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Through the work of the division she manages sections/programmes in library/knowledge/information services, ICTs, geospatial technology and innovation for Africa's development. Consequently she's led and implemented impressive initiatives such as UNECA's African Information Society Initiative (AISI), the Technology in Government in Africa Awards (TIGA) to encourage African governments use of technology for development, and the prestigious Innovation Prize for Africa Award (IPA) - catering for an African innovators and inventors to enhance their role in the continent's development process. She is credited with developing the African Science, Technology and Innovation Endowment Fund (ASTIEF) to support African scientists bring their inventions and research to market, as well as led on the development and implementation of the Access to Scientific Knowledge in Africa (ASKIA) Initiative - an innovative resource for enabling African scientists access scientific knowledge from a mobile application. Dr Opoku-Mensah's career spans academia, as well as the public and international sectors, and has also worked in philanthropy, working for the Ford Foundation's West Africa office in Lagos, Nigeria, and established the Panos Southern Africa regional office based in Lusaka, Zambia as its first director. Prior to this Dr Opoku-Mensah lectured at London's City University on communication policy and for many years covered African political, economic and social issues reporting for the BBC African Service as well as Radio Nederlands International – the Dutch World Service. She has written extensively on development issues in Africa given her 20 years experience in that field. Dr Opoku-Mensah has a PhD from the University of Leeds (UK), an MA from London's City University and a BA Hons from the University of Ghana, and is the recent receipient of the the Geospatial World Leadership Award for 'Making a Difference for making a difference' in Amsterdam, April, 2012, and also received the 'Africa diplomat of the year 2012 for the UK’s BEN TV 2012 diplomatic awards in November of the same year.
MEWC: There are still a lot of inequalities between men and women. Girls especially are discriminated against in terms of education. Can you tell us about UNECA's efforts to advance the status of girls and women in African societies?
AOM: UNECA has the Africa Centre for Gender & Social Development (ACGSDD) that works to contribute towards achieving women’s advancement and gender equality in member States. We don't specifically deal with girls per se but generally on women's advancement. This division (ACGSDD) is different from my division which is the ICT Science and Technology Division (ISTD) which I currently head. However, we do have some specific programmes within the work of my division on girls and women, which I will elaborate further in this interview.
MEWC: What are the barriers to getting more women in science and technology programs in universities?
AOM: A joint study commissioned in 2010/2011 by UNECA & the Kenyan Ministry of Higher Education, Science & Technology on mainstreaming gender in all aspects of science, technology and innovation systems, policies, strategies institutions, education, research and analysis in East Africa in 2010, revealed that despite the several positive steps undertaken through legal enactments, policies and programs already in place in East African Community member States, the level of women’s participation in science and technology throughout the life course, from primary through tertiary education to decision-making and employment is low compared to that of men. Within the region although gender equality in the higher education sector has seen some improvements in students’ enrolment, the average female enrolment continues to revolve around 30% of total students except for humanities and social sciences, disciplines where gender parity is observed. Moreover, stereotypes continue to manifest themselves. For example, nursing and social work programmes tend to have large proportions of women, even up to 95% while physics, mathematics and engineering programmes have low proportions of women, below 10%. In addition it was noted that the female proportion of academic science and technology staff varies from 2% (at the National University of Rwanda) to 7% in Universities and colleges in Tanzania. This situation was attributed to various causes such as: lack of clear policy guidelines on how to improve women’s involvement in STI, lack of gender analysis expertise, women’s reproductive roles, workload sharing between women and men, educational imbalances and unequal representation in decision-making positions, lack of role models, gender biases, masculine stereotypes of science and technologies, lack of sex disaggregated data, socio-cultural barriers, women’s unequal access to basic technologies, gender insensitive curriculums and gender discrimination. In addition gender biases built into society and research institutions create gender biases in S&T knowledge production.
MEWC: Women’s access to ICTs in Africa has grown during the last decade.However, there remains a need to address affordability and the perception and attitude towards the use of ICTs by women. Where do you think technology can go in terms of empowering women economically, socially, protecting them,..?
AOM: Technology albeit a double-edged sword can support women's advancement in highly positive ways. When women farmers can access the resources they need, their production increases, making it less likely that their families are hungry and malnourished.When women have access to time-saving technologies economic benefits can be derived. Technology helps women increase their productivity as well as launch income-generating pursuits and entrepreneurial ventures. Those kind of outcomes empower women to become empowered and therefore, stronger leaders enabling them to contribute financially to their families, communities and countries. More recently, women have been using social media, a public tool in the public domain for enhancing their private communications. First, social media such as twitter and facebook give women an authentic & unadulterated voice hitherto unknown. Previously, women's voices were mediated through media (particularly newspapers) with people interpreting, giving their own slants, especially by male journalists. Then came radio that gave women an empowered voice. Now its social media, where women can communicate 24/07 with themselves, between themselves. Second, social media enhances women's multiple identities: mothers are friends on facebook with their teenage and adult children, neices, nephews, sisters, brothers. They share an extended relationship family and friends that did not previously exist. For instance, my relationship with my children is different from my normal relationship. Its at another level. Which feels good a mix between friendship, kinship and parenthood. Third, social media such as twitter is giving space to women's issues in ways never imagined. I am able to follow on twitter different women's groups in Africa, Asia and Europe get to understand their role in women, ICTs/development. This includes following the Cherie Blair Foundation; The ICT Women's Summit; and other women's groups follow me as well. I am particularly thrilled when a woman follows me more than a man! It gives you a sense of solidarity. What was interesting was how women during the Arabsprings used social media, facebook and twitter to express their political views. i had friends in Egypt and Tunisia on facebook who said they did not feel isolated as women and felt inclusive to the changes going on in Egypt especially younger women who use social media to express their political views - again something they had never had the chance to do given the dictatorship of the Mubarack regime but found themselves alongside their male counterparts collaborating with the whole world and reaching out to keep interested parties informed and returning the solidarity that the world shared with them. Social media is increasingly offering younger women an opportunity for business (fb/twitter) as well as professional development (linkedin) so technology is going to go further and further and it will invariably carry women along without a doubt. What is important is that we should be mindful of the disadvantaged women as technology will always created its own 'followers' as well as those left behind.
MEWC: In October 2010, the AU launched the African Women's Decade, What do you think this decade represents for women in Africa? What are you thought regarding this decade?
AOM: I think this represents an important milestone for African women's empowerment. It also offers an opportunity for countries to examine how far they have gone in promoting women's empowerment and their advancement.
MEWC: What is the major factor hindering women political participation in Africa? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on possible ways to address women's political participation & decision-making in Africa?
AOM: It is well known that there are still challenges in Africa with respect to women's role in political participation and decision-making. In my PhD thesis I wrote about this and noted that what is more worrying is that women as compared to men are less active in formal categories of political participation for a number of reasons. Frankly speaking getting more women into political/public life should become part of the political agenda-setting process within all political parties, yet it is difficult to shake off the patriarchal nature of societies despite democratic dispensations in many African countries. Their absence from political and public life is due to the fact that they often bear the heavisest burden of ensuring for their families' well-being and survival and also face steep t social, structural, economic and cultural constraints that have kept them from taking up certain political opportunities and acting to meet their needs as freely as men. The low level of women in decision-making is also worrying but there has been some progress and this has to be acknowledged. The UNECA/Ministry of Higher Education, Science & Technology study I referred to earlier also revealed that affirmative actions are being implemented within the East African region. For example, in Uganda, there is increased proportion of women in decision making which is evidenced by increased number of women parliamentarians and other women members who hold senior positions at the national, regional and International levels. Women’s presence on parliamentary select committees has influenced gender responsive approaches in law reform. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has also played a key role in monitoring government’s progress towards implementation of human rights. The Child and Family Protection Units (CFPU) and the Family and Children Courts (FCC) have been put in place to address and adjudicate domestic complaints. Notably, Rwanda worldwide, is ranked first in term of percentage of women in Parliament (56.3%). Rwanda also has a number of institutions which serve the purpose of enabling gender-mainstreaming.
MEWC: Matters of gender are not priority issues in most African Governments, in case of budget cuts, they are the first to be targeted. With African Women's Decade implementation at national levels dependent on the gender ministries, how can ordinary women lobby for financial support from their governments?
AOM: I think this can be done through first lobbying female MPs where they exist (not all countries have functioning Parliaments). The international community and community development activists should support women's empowerment which they do. In fact, it is due to budget cuts and often inconsistencies in such programmes is why development partners tend to prioritise such efforts. The gender/women's movement should also have strong advocacy programmes for Governments.
MEWC: How can we encourage more students to stay and study in Africa and support African institutions (stigma of needing to go get educated abroad to be qualified)?
AOM: By empowering our youth and creating the necessary opportunities for them to flourish. Africa has much more opportunities than anywhere else in the world. So, if students realise that once they graduate they can contribute to the development of this continent in a meaningful way, they will stay and take up opportunities. For instance, one of the initiatives we have introduced at UNECA through the work of my division is the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). This is a joint initiative by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). It mobilizes African innovators and entrepreneurs by providing USD 150, 000 to winners who deliver market oriented solutions for African-led development. The IPA was awarded for the first time during a Gala Dinner organized as a side event to the ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, on 26 March 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The IPA will be awarded annually during the next five years. Overall, the IPA focuses on African-led solutions, it recognizes innovative breakthroughs that unlock new African potentials, and it mobilizes leaders from all sectors to fuel African innovation. The IPA selection comittee represents private equity investors, seed funders, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and development leaders who are looking for ideas that move Africa forward. The applications for 2013 has attracted a lot of students. So this kind of initiative can support graduates, youth who have ideas to make something of themselves, whilst providing a sustainable solution for Africa's problem. It is the youth of Africa that will build this continent as they are the future.
MEWC: How can technology be used to help prevent violence against women, especially in rural areas (new cell phone technology, mapping, satellites)?
AOM: I think first women in rural areas themselves need to be comfortable bringing such violence against them into the open before we can think of how to support them. This means empowering such women (starting with their mindset and letting them know how to assess their status within their own socio-cultural context. In fact technology is a double-edged sword. It can be used to prevent as well as help perpetuate violence against women. The UN estimates that 95% of aggressive behaviour, harassment, abusive language and denigrating images in online spaces are aimed at women and come from partners or former male partners. Research from Argentina shows that a woman's mobile phone is one of the items to be first seized and destroyed by a violent partner. However, through the ingenuity of women, they seem to be fighting back using technology. For instance, a study in Uganda shared by APC, found that some women have acquired two SIM cards to avoid domestic violence. One card is used at home or when with the controlling husband. A second number is shared with those who would cause suspicion if they were to call when the husband is present. This line is activated at the office or in the absence of the husband.
MEWC: Access to justice, ignorance of the law and economic empowerment remains a mirage for many women in Africa. what can be done to remedy the situation?
AOM: Three things.
1. Education because if women have access to it they can they can understand issues related to justice, law and their empowerment and make the necessary choices that can better their lives. Their ability to analyse, rationalise and decide will be greatly heightened through education.
2. Ensuring economic opportunities for women is key to their empowerment. We need to ask ourselves do we have financial institutions that provide support to women? Do we have the right policies in place for all of this? Its a recognised fact that where women's participation in the labour force grew fastest, the economy experienced the largest reduction in poverty rates, as they tend to be the human face of poverty.
3. Providing socially-enabling environments. Meaning we must realise that women socialise differently from men. Yet, there are some institutionalised activities that are typically for men. A good example is the sitting of Parliament, sometimes into very late hours. This deters women who are wives and mothers (especially young wives/mothers) because they need to be at home to take care of their families. Have these considerations be addressed? Not really. It would be great for Parliaments to have socially-enabling schemes such as creches for instance.