LDC5 spotlights contributions of women and girls in tech, despite tough odds and nagging barriers
The Fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5) joined the world in marking International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of women and girls everywhere. Strong calls for empowerment rang out in the massive convention center, with young women scientists and innovators, like the Afghan Girl’s Robotics Team, urging: “Never give up!”
At noon on Wednesday, LDC5 held a moment of celebration near Maman, the iconic bronze and stainless-steel sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois that towers over the main atrium at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Qatar, where the Conference has been under way since last Sunday. A celebration of motherhood, the giant statue, Ms. Bourgeois has said, echoes the strength of her own mother, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.
“Today should be about reflection and determination to do better, but it should also be a celebration. A celebration of the fundamental contribution made by women and girls, often against the odds, to the achievement of a better world,” said Rabab Fatima, the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS).
However, she reminded the participants that transformation of our societies for a better, more prosperous and peaceful world “can’t happen without first empowering women and girls”.
To that end, the Doha Programme of Action (DPoA) – which aims at removing structural obstacles to comprehensive growth and sustainable development – “can accelerate access and open doors to classrooms, boardrooms and staffrooms for women and girls in all the LDCs,” said Ms. Fatima, who is also the Secretary-General of the LDC5 Conference.
“Let us continue to work towards a world where all women and girls have equal access to every opportunity.”
The jubilant ceremony also featured a traditional African dance performance by Muda Africa from Tanzania, the winner of the UNESCO International Fund for Cultural Diversity, which helps creatives seize the opportunities offered by the digital environment.
Lagging representation in STI
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Innovation and Technological Change: Education in the Digital Age’, is directly relevant to the focus of the LDC5 Conference. These topics feature prominently in DPoA and have been the subject of discussion by all stakeholders in Doha for the past five days.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), only 30 per cent of researchers in LDCs are women. Even female researchers who have navigated their way to science, technology and innovation (STI) fields they tend to have shorter, less well-paid career and are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues because of ingrained discrimination and bias.
Quality and inclusive education, with a focus on basic digital literacy and technical skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT), will contribute to promoting gender equality and empowering all women and girls in LDCs, including those in rural areas.
Ms. Fatima said there could be a breakthrough in higher education in LDCs “by eliminating many artificial barriers that stand in the way of equal participation of women and girls in higher education, especially at STEM fields.”
“That is why the DPoA has a concrete target in this area, to undertake feasibility studies for establishing an online university,” explained Fatima. “The university’s goal is to achieve a 50/50 gender balance at all levels, while also guaranteeing special access for the poorest people and in vulnerable situations.”
Empowering women scientists
Among the many related activities in Doha today, an interactive dialogue, organized by the UN Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) in partnership with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), featured senior women representatives from the UN system and young women scientists from LDCs.
In 2021, UNOSSC and ICGEB jointly launched EMPOWER Fellowship at a strategic and critical time when the global community was fighting against an unprecedent health crisis, COVID-19, and in search of vaccines, treatments, and other innovative technologies.
According to Lawrence Banks, Director-General of ICGEB, five young women scientists from Bangladesh, Colombia, DR Congo, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe were selected, as the pilot cohort.
The five fellows were hosted at ICGEB Labs in India and South Africa in 2022. They received training to apply the latest techniques and methodologies to their research topics, and were provided mentoring on complementary skills, as well as opportunities to immerse themselves in a topnotch international scientific environment.
Dima Al-Khatib, the Director of the UNOSSC, highlighted the critical role that young women scientists can play in driving innovation and development in these regions and called for greater support and investment in their education, training, and capacity development.
“Investing in women and girls in STI can lead to economic growth, as it helps create more skilled workers who can contribute to the economy. This can help LDCs build a more diverse and resilient economy that can withstand global economic shocks,” Ms, Al-Khatib told UN News.
“Women and girls bring a unique perspective to the fields of STI, and investing in them can help foster innovation and creativity. By harnessing their skills and perspectives, LDCs can develop more creative solutions to their development challenges,” she said.
A journey to science
In an inspiring documentary launched at LDC5, five women scientists shared their experience as EMPOWER Fellows and how the programme has impacted their research and their life.
“The program is a life changing experience for me,” Najneen Rejwana told UN News. She is one of the EMPOWER fellows from Bangladesh and currently works in the Translational Bioinformatics lab in ICGEB.
Recalling how she has navigated her way to computational biology, she said: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were dying, and it [really] broke my heart, so I decided to do something, and I wanted to repurpose drugs through a bioinformatics approach. That’s how I found my interest in the computational biology.”
With the support from EMPOWER Fellowship, Rejwana received training to apply the latest techniques and methodologies to her research topics, and was provided mentoring, peer-to-peer learning and complementary skills, as well as opportunities to immerse in a top class international scientific environment.
“I found more opportunities to explore and to do some training that helps me in a better way than before.” said the young woman scientist.
When asked about the underrepresentation of women in science, Rejwana emphasized the importance of women’s participation in this field, saying that half of the world’s population is women, but they are left behind in the scientific sphere due to various social and societal issues and impediments.
She encouraged women to “come forward and engage themselves in the research field”.
Never give up!
Every day during LDC5, the first thing participants saw as they entered the convention centre was a group of young Afghan girls dressed in national garb. They were members of Afghanistan’s only all-girls robotics team. Behind them, on the stand, were the robots they had built.
“Today is 8 March, International Women’s Day. On this day, I would like to congratulate all women around the world, especially the brave women and girls in crisis-affected countries who still have hope for the future and are fighting for their rights,” said Somaya Faruqi, former captain of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team.
The team members have been studying in Qatar since August 2021, after being evacuated from their home country “without saying goodbye to their families”. After the Taliban returned to power, new rules have banned girls from education and denied women their human rights.
“The biggest challenge for women in Afghanistan right now is that they don’t have their basic rights to go to schools, universities, parks, gyms, restaurants. They are not allowed to go out of the house without a male guardian like a father, brother or husband, which is sad, which means that they are now like in a prison without any hope for the future, for education,” Somaya told UN News.
She added: “I believe that education is the key to unlocking the potential of every child. We should give them the key and give them the opportunity to unlock their full potential.”
“Today we are here to show the power, ability and talent of girls in Afghanistan. We never gave up,” Asefa Amini, Somaya’s team member, told UN News, and added: “I hope that one day all the girls of Afghanistan will have the opportunity to show what they can do.”
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