Quantcast
A Nigerian STEM Club Offers Girls an Alternative to Marrying Young

In a country where everything from family pressure to Boko Haram can deter girls from education, Stella Uzochukwu runs an after-school tech club.

After nine years as an engineer, Stella Uzochukwu quit her well-paid job in a telecommunications company in Nigeria to start up an after-school STEM class for kids. The aim, she said, was to try alleviate some of the gender and security problems afflicting her country.

"There's a big gender imbalance when it comes to the tech sector in Nigeria," said Uzochukwu, who is the founder of Nigerian NGO Odyssey Educational Foundation, over the phone.

She blamed the gender gap on her country's underlying societal problems. "In Nigeria, some families want to give their girls away in marriage when they're as young as 13 or 14, and some families don't even bother putting their children in schools," she said.

According to Uzochukwu, some parents perceive girls as laborers who can help them peddle wares, or as an investment. "They see their girls as a gold mine. For example, they think that if she is married early, they will be able to enjoy the riches of their in-laws in the next five years," she said.

A coding staff in one of the Odyssey Educational Foundation's partner schools. Image: Stella Uzochukwu/Odyssey Educational Foundation

Aside from familial pressure on girls, since the militant Islamist group Boko Haram launched its insurgency in Nigeria in 2009, reports have highlighted their destruction of schools, indiscriminate killings, and the shocking kidnappings of 276 girls from their school's dormitories on April 14, 2014 in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. Such issues, said Uzochukwu, deter investors from coming to the country, and make it harder for her to reach out to relevant NGO and official parties—such as UNICEF and the American Embassy—who might be able to help her within the country.

"Even if you want to drop off a request letter for something, you have to pass through numerous security barriers to reach the relevant people in the right offices, and sometimes you don't get let through," she said.

Despite the challenges, Uzochukwu established the Odyssey Educational Foundation—located in Abuja, Nigeria's capital city—in 2013. The NGO runs on a shoestring budget, and aims to teach kids, especially girls, the basics of STEM, and offer them a hands-on way to develop their skills. Uzochukwu got the idea for the school when she left her job in telecommunications to study in India.

"When I was pursuing my management masters in India, I saw how some after-schools in India let kids develop more practical ICT and engineering skills. I saw how they got to build robots, for example," said Uzochukwu. "In Nigeria, I hadn't seen things like that. Most kids have to focus on learning things out of textbooks and cramming for exams, but I wanted to change that."

A group of girls brainstorming on their project presentation. Image: Stella Uzochukwu/Odyssey Educational Foundation

Since 2013, 500 girls have passed through the doors of Uzochukwu's NGO. But while more emphasis is generally being placed on educating and empowering women in Nigeria, both reports and Uzochukwu say that there is a significant gender divide when it comes to access to education, political representation, and economic participation.

Nigeria has a National Gender Policy that strives to quash discriminatory practices against women, but the problems faced by women still abound, with traditions and religious laws restricting women's rights. Though the national average for girls in secondary education in Nigeria is 53 percent, certain regions of the country have much lower percentages of girls in schools. For example, Borno State—in which the Chibok kidnappings occurred—only has a net secondary school attendance of 29 percent. The country does boast a strong history of women in politics. However, five months after the current administration, under Muhammadu Buhari, came into power, a mere 16 percent of womenwere nominated for ministerial roles within his government.

"It's a struggle, but when you're educating a girl, you're actually educating a whole nation."

In a bid to empower women and girls and slowly change mindsets, Uzochukwu and her team of 15 staffers travel to more rural areas around Abuja to talk with women. Their aim is to convince them to send their children to school as opposed to make them forgo an education in order to help out with small family businesses.

Despite the societal and familial challenges faced by women in Nigeria, Uzochukwu had a lucky start in life: Her family supported her interest in the sciences, and she pretty much knew she wanted to be an engineer since she was a kid.

"As I liked to fiddle with electronic components in the house and fix things, I knew that I wanted to pursue a technology degree from an early age," said Uzochukwu. Though she was the only girl reading engineering at the University of Ilorin, Kwara state in western Nigeria, Uzochukwu was convinced that "what a man can do, a woman can do too," so she worked alongside electrical engineering employees, joining in on wiring tasks while still a student.

Uzochukwu works alongside her girls. Image: Stella Uzochukwu/Odyssey Educational Foundation

There is also the need to find resources and mentors to guide and provide a future network for the kids. Yet, it's often hard, said Uzochukwu, to convince potential mentors and volunteers to give up their time for free.

"If I'm a lady and I come into your class and tell you that I'm an electrical engineer, and I'm earning X amount of money, you might think, 'Oh, then I can do this too,' said Uzochukwu.

Despite the challenges, Uzochukwu is determined to grow her after school.

"After our passing through our program, the perception of a lot of girls have changed when it comes to what they want to do in the future. Many want to become scientists now, whereas in the past, they'd finish their secondary education then go back home and get married," said Uzochukwu.

"It's a struggle, but when you're educating a girl, you're actually educating a whole nation."

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.

Bootstrapped is a column exploring how people facing socio-economic and political challenges are leveraging technology to launch projects aimed at tackling social issues.