Education officials from selected Anglophone countries in Africa are meeting in the Rwandan capital Kigali to explore ways to get more girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The forum, which ends Friday, was organized by the UN's education agency UNESCO under the theme "Cracking the code: Quality, Gender-Responsive STEM Education."
It has attracted participants from eight countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
The education officials are looking at factors that influence girls' participation, learning outcomes, and retention in STEM studies.
The forum's attendees are also considering the current situation in participating countries, good practices, and actions to be taken to ensure gender-responsive quality STEM education.
Silas Lwakabamba, a former minister of education for Rwanda and a member of the Atlantis Group of former education ministers around the world, told Anadolu Agency it is important to encourage girls to take STEM subjects while they are still in primary school in order to increase their numbers at both school and university levels.
According to UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, while more girls are enrolled in school than before, girls are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects in many settings and seem to lose interest in STEM subjects as they approach adolescence.
"We need to encourage young girls through role models, to get them interested. There are a number of women who have done very well in mathematics, engineering and pure sciences who can show young girls that this can be done," Lwakabamba said in an interview Wednesday.
The workshop was expected to come up with strategies to intensify efforts to engage girls in STEM and develop a framework for monitoring and evaluating progress on STEM and gender.
Lwakabamba said cultural beliefs are another barrier to girls' careers in sciences that needs to be addressed.
There is a need to get people who can encourage parents to talk to their daughters to debunk the myth that STEM is a preserve of men and that doing engineering is about climbing ladders, he said.
Speaking at the workshop earlier, Rwanda's Minister of State in Charge of Primary and Secondary Education, Isaac Munyakazi, called for deliberate actions to create gender-responsive STEM educational environments that engage, empower and inspire girls.
Workshop host Rwanda started STEM-gender mentorship and inspiring camps in collaboration with UNESCO and FAWE Rwanda, with the next camp planned to take place in December.
The promotion of STEM in Rwanda has already brought many improvements in various aspects of life, such as health, ICT infrastructure, sustainable and renewable energy production and intensive and modern agriculture, Munyakazi said.
The workshop is also seeking to strengthen the capacity of education officials to undertake intentional and deliberate actions to create gender-responsive STEM educational environments that engage, empower and inspire girls.
According to Lwakabamba, there is also a need for more investment in teacher training in order to get specialized teachers who can teach STEM subjects at all levels, from primary to university.
"I think we should get people who are specialists. If we can get a teacher specializing for example in physics, chemistry or mathematics alone, that will help. The question of somebody teaching across the board -- one hour teaching mathematics, another hour teaching chemistry and so on -- that doesn't help," he said.
The education officials aim to develop a cohort of professional trainers to effectively deliver curriculum for gender-responsive STEM education.
There is hope to strengthen the capacity of the education system to provide gender-responsive STEM education, thereby increasing girls' participation in these fields, an official said.
Munyakazi added that Rwanda is focusing on the promotion of science, technology and research in line with its National Strategy for Transformation.
The jobs of the future will be driven by technology and innovation, and if the gender divide in STEM is not bridged soon, the overall gender gap will likely widen, according to UN Women.