Supporting research equity in Uganda and Ethiopia

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Femi Nzegwu was the INASP lead for the gender work in our GPEKE project until May 2021. In this blog post Femi reflects on the progress made in this area.

In March last year I got off one of the last flights from Entebbe before the Ugandan border first closed due to COVID-19. I had just had the pleasure of being part of two workshops, in Eastern Uganda and Western Uganda – working towards improved gender equity in research. They followed a similar workshop in Ethiopia a month earlier.

These workshops were organised in partnership with the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS) and Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) as part of the gender equity strand of our Global Platforms for Equitable Knowledge Ecosystems (GPEKE) programme.

Equity in research and knowledge is a fundamental theme of the GPEKE programme and throughout INASP’s work. Currently there are many inequities that mean that vital research voices are underrepresented or missing entirely from tackling key development challenges. And, worldwide, one of the key inequities in research and higher education centres around gender.

According to UNESCO statistics, female enrolment in tertiary education worldwide tripled between 1995 and 2020. However, women remain underrepresented in many aspects of academia. And there are plenty of stories of working environments that are made more difficult for women due to biases, harassment or lack of flexibility for women with caregiving responsibilities.

National networks to address gender challenges in research

Recognising these issues, UNCST and EAS started working with INASP back in 2018 on dialogue events to explore the challenges around research equity, including gender, in the specific contexts of Uganda and Ethiopia. These dialogues resulted, in the formation of national networks in both countries to understand, educate and champion gender issues. These networks are the Ethiopian Gender Forum and, in Uganda, the Gender Equity in Research Alliance. (For more on the background to these groups, see this blog post).

Working with EAS and UNCST as these fledgling groups formed and evolved has been one of the highlights of my last couple of years at INASP. And, despite the many COVID-19-related anomalies over the past year, during 2020 and 2021 these gender networks have continued to evolve. They have begun to facilitate the institutionalising and mainstreaming of gender equity in the day-to-day workings of research institutions and institutions of higher education across the two countries.

In both countries, the networks affirm the positive and critical role that both women and men play in society, and have played historically, and the need to value and focus attention on the complementarity of these roles in national development. They also insisted from the start that any solutions advanced to address the issue of inequity must benefit both women and men and be orchestrated by both men and women in each setting.

The two countries adopted somewhat different approaches to implementing the establishment of the gender alliances as appropriate to their needs and context, and there is strong ownership and interest from both country partners.

Sharing some highlights

There have been many highlights for me of this work over the past year or so. The energy in both Ethiopia and Uganda in face-to-face gender workshops has been one highlight. And in more recent times it has been great to see that energy transferred into blended settings, to be able to join workshops virtually that include a mixture of participants in the room and participants joining via Zoom.

Earlier this year UNCST, with INASP support, began work on a dedicated web platform for the Gender Equity in Research Alliance (GERA). Already, even as development continues, this platform is providing a place for regional gender coordinators and institutional focal points in Uganda to share their approaches and learning with each other and begin to support each other.

And it is this cross-country learning and support that underpins what both our partners want these networks to achieve. In Ethiopia last year, for example, some workshop participants shared experiences of how their institutions increased engagement with female students and staff through adapting their approaches to rewarding achievement and through changes to accommodation policies. In Uganda, as I wrote about last year, a team at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in western Uganda developed an app to help students who are victims of assault.

It has also been exciting to see these groups start to become more embedded within the two countries. The Ethiopian Gender Forum meetings have attracted representation from Government ministries. In Uganda, GERA has been registered as an NGO.

There are also some practical changes emerging as a result of training within the networks, as this comment from LivingStone University in Uganda reveals:

“Ignited by the gender workshop organized by INASP and UNCST from 10th to 12 March 2020 at Busitema University, the university administration at LivingStone International University (LIU), Budaka District, without hesitation, adopted the 2020-2023 Action Plan developed by their representative during the workshop. Consequently, gender balanced leadership roles at senior level are now being manifested in some departments. In order to enhance and manage gender equity as well as engage with and build partnership support with the Uganda Alliance and other gender-interest organizations, an Internal Gender Committee was formed with three male and three female staff. In 2021, the committee hopes to begin developing strategies and write a Gender Policy for submission to the University Council.”

Reflections and learning

It was exciting to work with these inspiring networks, work that is now being continued with the two partners working alongside my colleague Jennifer Chapin. As I reflect back on the gender work in the GPEKE project during my time working for INASP, I want to share some key learnings from this work to date:

    • Commitment coalescing into action
      There is undoubtedly a commitment on the part of the research communities in both Uganda and Ethiopia to make significant inroads into solving the issue of gender inequity in their research community. We are also witnessing a consciousness across many institutions to either put in place (or operationalise existing) mechanisms that support greater levels of equity such as the gender focal persons/committee plus a budget to enable them to operate. In the words of one member,we must consider how to get each local university chapter moving forward, but also to understand their challenges and how to provide the support needed.”
    • Adapting approaches to individual country contexts
      The development of these networks has been pursued quite strategically by the two partners, taking into consideration the political and hierarchical constructs of the research and higher education systems in the countries. The approach has been very consultative in Uganda drawing on a process of co-visioning and co-developing the network through the four workshops held in 2019 and 2020. In Ethiopia, the approach has also involved an element of consultation – first at the national dialogue in 2018 and later at the workshop in February 2020; however, the framing for the network has occurred more centrally, albeit with input from key universities across Ethiopia. Each approach has worked for its creators.
    • Going beyond the capital cities
      Both EAS and UNCST continue to engage a diverse range of participating institutions, reaching beyond the traditional ‘apex’ institutions. This is a key thread throughout the GPEKE programme, to improve equity by engaging a wide range of institutions and regions throughout the countries.
    • Innovation is occurring within the gender networks
      Significant innovation is present across member universities and many are actively addressing issues of inequity in the research environment, demonstrated, for example, by the app developed at Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
    • Differing approaches to gender equity approaches in workshops
      In Uganda, workshops were attended by equal numbers of men and women, both recognising that the issues at stake transcend gender and the need for the university management to be fully involved. Workshops included people at very senior levels of the universities’ management. Ethiopia similarly had very senior levels of management present, however, they were mostly women. While we cannot discount the importance of having a forum for women to discuss these issues, the significant underrepresentation of men at the Ethiopia event highlights the need for the forum to go to greater lengths to ensure their active involvement in the next set of training events. The gender demographics of each country’s GPEKE workshops are linked with the demographics of women in academia at a national level. In Uganda, 28% of researchers are women but in Ethiopia that figure is only 13%; where there is a bigger gender gap it seems that fewer men engage in discussions around gender.

It was a pleasure to be part of this work and I look forward to hearing about further development and innovation in Uganda and Ethiopia as the two countries continue to work to improve equity for women and men in their universities and research systems.

Cover image: Participants in Ethiopia Gender Forum in Addis Ababa, February 2020

Femi Nzegwu
Femi was Head of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning at INASP until May 2021.

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