As I am writing this blog, I have successfully defended my thesis for my bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Addis Ababa University. I am awaiting my graduation ceremony, after which I will officially be known as an engineer—without the “…student” suffix. I truly feel a great weight lift off my shoulders for it was not an easy road. I chose to join engineering and I chose to go into Electrical Engineering. But I have faced a lot of barriers along my way, both as a university student and as a woman. I have had a lot of sleepless nights while studying and/or stressing about grades. I have forgotten to drink water, eat food and at one point, I had forgotten to wash my hair for an entire month! I could only afford 5-minute showers every day; there was no way I could spend 40 minutes detangling my African hair. When I realized how long I neglected myself and suddenly blurted out, “OMG, I have not washed my hair in a month!” the girl beside me responded with, “Me, neither!”
Aside from the lack-of-sleep hallucinations and the gastric reflux caused by cheap food, I was happy. I got good grades, I enjoyed doing my assignments and projects, and I enjoyed learning outside of the curriculum. I was safe and secure in my own bubble. That was until reality hit me with a truck—I was in my own bubble. I was unaware of what was going on around me. I was unaware of the women who, just like me, forget to eat and sleep. When I went inside my cocoon, there were 19 other girls in my class. By the time I came out, there were only 4 others that did not lag a year, change departments, or dropped out.
Education and Women
It has been ages since the fight for equal access to education has started. Yet, despite the many battles that have been won on paper, we are a long way from achieving it. In developed countries like America, access to education that is free from sex discrimination was guaranteed as a right in 1972. In New Zealand, a similar achievement was made early in 1871, when the first girls’ secondary school was opened in Dunedin 15 years after the first boys’ secondary school. Coming to our country, the first girls’ school was opened in 1931. But is opening of schools really enough?
The obvious answer is no. After some trial and error, governments all over the world saw there were barriers that written laws could not solely overcome. Why? Because it is not the law—or lack thereof—that has single-handedly kept women from going to school. It is the society and its patriarchal fabric. It is the social responsibilities that keep women at home. It is the cultural practices that lead to early marriage and motherhood at a young age. It is the lack of support system for the few rebels who pushed in order to exercise their written right for access to education.
Then came affirmative action….
When governments and policy-makers realized that the laws were not enough, they came up with policies to make up for the wrong doing of HIStory on womankind. When it comes to education and affirmative action, their solution was to lower the passing mark for women. Come university entrance examination, women will need lower marks than men to enter universities of the same field and the same region. Let us really think about this. In doing so, we are telling women that they are not capable of playing on a level field and that they can get by in life with lower results than men. For the men, we are bluntly implying that they are better than women. This is not my sole judgment; it is my analysis of the sentiment by men and women at universities. We have painted women to always be in need of support or, as some call it, “special attention.” Additionally, we are engraving in the women’s minds that they will get this “special treatment” at every point in their lives.
What ought we to do?
Not every government official has used affirmative action as a patching up solution and left women stranded after they entered universities. Professor Hirut Woldemariam has mobilized tutors and raised funds to pay tutors for women after they join universities. While this is truly admirable, it does not solve the root problem. It does not eliminate the barriers that are preventing women from getting the grades that are expected from their male counterparts. It does not eliminate the days women have to miss school because of their periods or because of house chores.
If you think I am exaggerating on how discriminatory the existing system is towards women, let me tell you a simple incident that happened about two years ago. We went on mandatory internship for a semester and at the end of the semester, our internship advisors were required to fill out a report form. The form used the pronoun “he/his” throughout. Nowhere in the form did the school think a woman would be the intern in question. It is as if no one even thought of us, yet our universities boast about the 25-30% women students that are on the campuses. This is just the simplest but most obvious of the sex discrimination that happen in higher education. One blog cannot hold all of the things that women students have to deal with.
So while we are lowering grades and hiring tutors, let us also work on eliminating the challenges that are keeping women from needing those things. Let us prevent discrimination at school and underestimation by teachers. Let us make sure women university students do not fall victim of sexual harassment from prying lecturers. Education should not be seen as a privilege. It is a basic human right.
Written by: Hellina Hailu