While in Uganda, I was able to meet with and get to know both of the teams I’ve been working with this semester: BON Biomed and the Biomedical Elites. There were many discussions about the design projects, as well as other topics. Of note, there were several conversations discussing the education system in Uganda, with a particular focus on women in engineering.
First, a quick background on engineering education in the US. According to ASME, only about 18-20% of engineering students in the US are female. Having gone through engineering personally, I can testify to that number. Our classes consist of mostly male students and male professors. Unfortunately, this can sometimes result in being looked down upon, having opinions ignored, and overall just being treated differently.
It seems to be the complete opposite in Uganda. Right off the bat, I noticed that both of the teams I’m working with in Uganda are pretty equally distributed in terms of gender. I might even venture to say that most of the teams in the Duke- MUK program are that way. This gave me a chance to talk about gender roles in education from both perspectives. From my peers, I learned that engineering at Makarere, like in the US, is male dominated. There are classes that have seventy students, with only two that are girls. This is mostly the case for mechanical and electrical engineering, which is also similar to the US.
I learned that overall, there are more male students in college. After talking to teammates, I realized that this can trace back to many factors. One is the education system itself. To get into college, students need to take an exam. Based on what courses you take in high school and how well you score on the exam, the student is given specific majors to choose from. To get into engineering, they had to have taken physics and math in high school and scored well on both of those exams. In this area, most of the students that score top marks are male. One of my teammates said that nine out of the top ten students are male; therefore, only one girl made the cut for top marks. This could result in girls not even being able to pursue engineering as much due to these overall lower scores. (Full disclosure- this trend is not the same throughout different majors; there are some areas where there are only girls in the top ten.)
Aside from qualifications, another reason for the lower number of women in higher education when compared to men is cultural. In Uganda, men have always been seen as tougher, sharper, and more committed than women. Women, on the other hand, used to not be allowed to go to school. As Clarke states, women were traditionally expected to stay home to cook for their man and independence was frowned upon . That being said, those days are gone, as are the days when girls weren’t allowed to each chicken! Society is slowly transitioning to accepting and encouraging girls to get an education. As Clarke mentions, girls are altogether becoming more enlightened and are not adhering to this previously traditional role as much anymore . Another of my teammates said that since girls are getting into engineering more, the lecturers tend to put more effort into ensuring that they carry their load. She says that she’s never felt neglected in any way, which is great and certainly different from a lot of the girls in engineering here in the US. While the numbers are still low, there is clear progress and effort being placed toward increasing the number of women in engineering.
Moving forward, things seem to be looking up for the next generation of women in Uganda. There have been several policies, such as the National Strategy for Girls’ Education, implemented to help achieve gender equality in education by increasing female attendance at schools long term. Although there are some articles online debating the efficacy of such policies, several of my teammates said that they have actually made a difference and positively impacted women pursuing an education. The policies are heavily enforced and have helped increase the number of girls in schools. Through media research, I learned that washrooms are being built at schools in rural areas so that girls can have a place to change their sanitary pads. In these areas, retention of female students has historically been lower due to these lacking circumstances that ultimately force girls to stay home once they hit puberty; however, since starting to implement the washrooms, they were able to retain 1300 girls in one village alone. With expanding these projects, more and more girls will be able to attend school, even in the rural villages. Furthermore, during the trip, I was able to visit a primary boarding school near where we were staying. A chart outside on the wall gave different statistics about the school and the enrolled students. There were equal numbers of boys and girls attending the school across all grade levels, showing that girls are being treated fairly and given equal opportunities starting earlier on than previously.
Overall, there are many differences between the education systems in the US and Uganda, but there are also many similarities. Although Uganda is still making the switch from prohibiting girls to get an education to encouraging it, a lot of progress has been made—as seen in the incredible girls (and guys) I met while in Uganda. A lot happened in that week—card games, board games, meals, shopping, and dancing—that brought us all together, but there are few bonds as strong as that of engineering students suffering together and even fewer when it comes to those bonds between girls. I think this was definitely one of those times. At least all the work we—from both the Duke and MUK sides—put into these projects is hopefully going to a good cause. You never know, perhaps the patients we help today could be the engineers of tomorrow!
The lovely people that I had the privilege to work with. They taught me so much about their culture and showed me a great time in Uganda! Bonus: both teams are evenly split in terms of gender!