Gender Empowerment, a Pre-requisite for Teachingin Freedom in African Higher Education Institutions

Gender Empowerment, a Pre-requisite for Teachingin Freedom in African Higher Education Institutions

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To Celebrate World Teacher’s Day, October 5, The Women’s Torch would like to congratulate teachers’ worldwide, particularly female teachers working in … environment across West Africa.  We would like to thank all teachers for their immense contributions to the socio-economic development of their respective nations.

The theme for this year is ‘Teaching in Freedom, Empowering Teachers’. The Women’s Torch posits that to teach in freedom one must be empowered first.  Empowerment is an important prerequisite to freedom.   The term empowerment is interpreted differently but most often, it is associated primarily with gender equality.  Empowerment is however integral to development thinking.

It encompasses choice, freedom, capacity, participation, autonomy, and increased resources.  Consensus can however can be found around the idea of empowerment as a means of improving quality of life and expanding the basis of human well-being. In short, empowerment can serve as a mechanism for effecting deep and broad-based social transformation.

How can this concept be applied to female teachers in Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) in West Africa where women are still under-represented in teaching, research, academic and administrative positions of high status?  In addition to their limited numbers, they tend be clustered in the lower levels of the academic occupational ladder.

Statistical data shows an increase in the numbers of female students enrolling in HEI’s. However, high attrition rates in the lower levels of the education systems constitute a persistent barrier to increased enrolment at the higher education level. This is despite the acknowledgement by all African countries that education particularly higher education is the key to national and regional development.

Indeed, it is the highest level of education that produces the human resources with the knowledge, attitude and skills to participate in national and international decision-making and problem solving. The World Bank Report ‘Constructing Knowledge  Societies’ (2002) indicates the  importance of higher education in general and in the training of a qualified and adaptable labour force, including high level scientists, professionals, technicians, and teachers; as a sine quo non for development.

 Despite this acknowledgement of the benefits that education can bring to an individual and to society in general there are still huge disparities in ensuring equality of educational opportunity and the distribution of the benefits that are associated with the different levels of education that people with different socio-economic conditions and status including gender may be able to achieve.

There is indeed a positive correlation between educational attainment and productive work, exercise of social and political responsibility and the authority to demand for ones rights and the rights of others. Thus these benefits must be looked at from the perspective of fundamental human rights and freedoms and access to education and opportunities to use the knowledge acquired to bring about social and political transformations.

It requires the production and utilization of various forms of knowledge particularly those which shape public policy and practice. This is where the fundamental issues of gender equality and equality of educational opportunity become important. Attainment of these important concepts continue to be challenged by the predominance of males in African HEI’s. The factors which inhibit female participation are quite well known and include societal values and norms and persistent gender stereo typing and gender insensitive policies and programmes.

As the role of higher education becomes more critical and this is likely to increasefurther, in the new knowledge-based and globalizing economy, it becomes even more important for everyone especially for women and other groups that have been hithertomarginalized to be included.

While gender has become an important agenda in the mainstream higher education discourse, it is difficult to find studies that address this issue. The few that exist confirm the difficulties at the policy, institutional, organizational, and political levels of putting into place strategies for gender inclusion in higher education institutions.  There is a lack of evidence of vigorous and sustained efforts to eliminate the gender gap at this level.

There are reports that indicate an increase in female enrolment at this level in HEIs but an under-representation in the STEM Science, Technical, Engineering and Maths subject areas. The few that participate in the male-dominated subjects have to endure loneliness, and lack of support due to an absence of role models and /or female mentors and in some cases harassment and a lack of awareness of the needs of female students that make it very difficult for female students in these domains to benefit fully from their learning experience.

Some of the promising solutions include the gender mainstreaming policies motivated by the global development agendas of the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals.  The institutionalization of STEM programmes for girls and coaching and mentoring programmes by older and more experienced staff members to support the younger and more inexperienced ones.

Gender equality in education must be holistically addressed in the entire education sector.  Without girls’ access to primary/basic education getting secondary education and then higher education will not be possible.

 If women are to be able to teach in freedom in HEI’s they must be empowered first to enable them exercise this freedom.  This will require giving them the necessary knowledge and skills in research including choosing a research focus, presenting the research findings to colleagues for peer review and publishing the research findings; production of knowledge and determining what to teach in the classroom.

Women’s limited presence in higher education is an infringement of their right to quality education at all levels.  Participation, however, cannot be equated with empowerment.  Participating in flawed systems merely perpetuates existing forms of injustice. In order to advance the cause of teaching in freedom female teachers in HEI’s must possess both the capacity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing social structures and the freedom to choose between participating in those structures, working to reform them, or endeavoring to build new ones.