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Sonjica: SA Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology (07/03/2003)

7th March 2003


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Date: 07/03/2003
Source: Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
Title: Sonjica: SA Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology


Distinguished guests,
Eminent scientists,
Members of the media,
Ladies and Gentleman -

"We should dare to dream of a world where no child lives in fear of war or suffers the ravages of militarism. We must invest in human and economic development, so that no one has to live in poverty. We must project a bold vision of a world where valuable resources are no longer squandered on the instruments of death and destruction, but are creatively harnessed for economic development and opportunity.

Let's dare to dream of a Beloved Community where starvation, famine, hunger, and malnutrition will not be tolerated because the civilised community of nations won't allow it." This is an edited version of the words of Coretta Scott King.

Let me amplify her words and emphasise that we must project a bold vision of a world where the valuable contributions of women, as well as men, are creatively harnessed for social and economic development and opportunity. Let's dare to dream of creating a community where poverty and underdevelopment will not go unchallenged, where we will all be proactive in addressing the needs of our communities and our world.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to celebrate a milestone in our journey towards equality for all the people of our country. What we do in the years ahead in developing our science and technology capacity and sector, especially in areas of concern such as the representivity of our pool of researchers, scientists and innovators, will go a long way in determining where in the global village we build our house, whether it will be in the slums or the suburbs. The challenge for South Africa and other developing countries is to ensure that local needs are met and national resources safeguarded and developed and yet, remain at the cutting-edge of international development.

Coretta Scott King's words by implication express the pressing need to open up opportunities for - and encourage participation by women, who make up more than half of the world's population, since they carry the heaviest burden of inequality and bear the full brunt of poverty. The meaningful empowerment of women is an essential step in lifting communities out of poverty - the currency of the quote that "If you educate a man you educate a person, but if you educate a woman you educate a family" (i), bears testimony to this. It is our social and moral obligation to ensure that each individual has the confidence and the opportunity to tap into her or his full potential.

Currently, the science, engineering and technology sector in South Africa is facing some major crises in terms of the uptake of women into the SET stream. Women accounted for only 26,8% of the research workforce in 1996. More disconcerting is the fact that in 1990, only 15% of all scientific publication in South Africa was by women and this rate has decreased to 14% over the last decade. The other problem area that we face is an international one - women have to be about 2.2 times more productive than their male counterparts to be successful in securing financial support.

This gender bias in research awards was clearly documented in the 1997 study by the Swedish MRC. This landmark study gave credence to the need for the many global mandates (either explicit or implicit) in Science and Technology to be heeded seriously. These global mandates include: -

* CEDAW in 1979
* The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995
* UNESCO Declaration on Science emanating from the World Conference on Science in 1999 and;
* The Beijing + 5 Report in 2000.

I think the resolution of the UN Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 which called for, inter alia: "The full and effective participation of women in the decision-making and implementation process related to science and technology including planning and setting priorities for research and development and the choice, acquisition, adaptation, innovation and application of science and technology for development" aptly captures the essence of why and what we hope to achieve with the process we are initiating today. Our government is proactively addressing the issue of gender equality across the spectrum and this is increasingly reflected in the work that we do.

The challenge that we face in this century is to turn noble aspirations into actions. Our President has highlighted that we are now engaged in directing increasing amounts of energy to the implementation of our programmes and policies. Also, as we enter the second decade of democracy, we must ensure that relevant, measurable and meaningful results characterise the endeavours that we undertake. There is a trend globally to create structures within society that specifically address and advise on mechanisms to enhance the contribution of women in improving the quality of life and increasing the overall wealth of a nation.

The National Research and Development Strategy approved by Cabinet in 2002 articulates a clear position on the empowerment of women and the need for their meaningful participation and contribution in the development of R&D in South Africa. The R&D Strategy complements and develops the National System of Innovation adopted in the White Paper on Science and Technology. The two significant high-level goals of good systems of innovation are an improvement in the quality of life and growth and wealth creation. These goals can only be achieved through activities directly related to the acquisition, generation and appropriate application of knowledge. It is in this strategic context that the South African Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology is sited in the R&D strategy.

The R&D Strategy's approach to human resource development is to be proactive in turning the tide to increase the number of women and people from previously disadvantaged communities entering science-related fields in South Africa. We are aware that Public Understanding of Science, Engineering and Technology (PUSET) programmes will only succeed if careers in the SET sector are made attractive, shown to be rewarding and made accessible to a broad range of people.

We need to continue to break down two-dimensional stereotypes of who scientists are and what science entails.

Access to science and technology for women is necessary to transfer patterns of productivity, contribute to job creation and new ways of working and in promoting the establishment of a knowledge-based society resulting in wealth creation. Access by women to science and technology also has the potential to positively contribute to improving the quality of life of women and their households.

Wide consultation with key stakeholders at various fora has determined that the vehicle to achieve gender mainstreaming is through the appointment of a South African Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology (SARG).

SARG will have to address the key issues of quality of life, contribution to wealth creation and gender mainstreaming of research agendas and human capital development in a holistic manner.

These should be related to all aspects of a woman's life and not be confined to adult life or to a woman's reproductive role only. The concept that has gained international currency is one of looking at gender issues across the lifespan.

The advice provided by SARG will address issues of the infant and girl child through to adolescence and career path, and finally to old age and frail care in the context of research agendas and human capital development. The SARG will aim to achieve greater equality between women and men by bringing a gender equality perspective into everyday practice, and by complementing the more traditional approaches of promoting gender equality, such as legislation and positive action.

But human capital development and technology transfer and diffusion alone may not achieve the expected outcomes if access to specific finance for women both in research and in SMME development is not strengthened.

This empowerment of the poor is well illustrated by Dr Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which addresses the bias of traditional banking systems against women and the poor. He states "It is the responsibility of all societies to ensure human dignity for every member of society but we haven't done very well in that endeavour. We talk about human rights, but we don't link human rights with poverty. Poverty is the denial of human rights". In the past 20 years, the concept of the Grameen Bank has spread to over 56 countries including the U.S. as a finance scheme to develop SMMEs. This is also an issue that the SARG would need to seriously interrogate as a specific mechanism to enhance the empowerment of women.

The composition of the reference group is diverse yet inclusive. It consists of an international component, which will give us the benefit of international best practice and expertise, and a South African group. The members are drawn from the broad range of science categories, from physics to the humanities, and from different work exposure areas like academia, technology intensive industry and business; and gender activism.

This divergent group was deliberately assembled to ensure that its members also become role models for promoting women's entry into and advancement in SET.

The monitoring role of the SARG in tracking institutional impact will provide a constant gender lens through which to evaluate the success of this endeavour. The Department of Science and Technology has a series of instruments that can be applied to ensure compliance with recommendations made by the SARG. The development of the group as a permanent sub-committee of NACI is strategic since NACI advises us on funding to science councils and higher education institutions. Gender specific key performance indicators of these institutions can now be linked to budgets to achieve equity and the emergence of distinguished women scientists.

We congratulate the women of our country who have already made their mark on the national and international scientific scene. Let us dare to dream that one-day a female Nobel Laureate in the science fields will be from South Africa.

I would like to pledge that on a political level, I shall champion the cause with my political colleagues from other departments to ensure co-operation from all relevant stakeholders.

I am delighted to announce that a range of public initiatives for highlighting women's achievements in science and technology is to be presented at the September meeting of SARG.

These will be in the form of:

* The Distinguished Women Scientist's Lecture Series to be broadcast to Africa in the spirit of NEPAD and the African Union. This will provide an opportunity to women scientists to deliver scientific papers. The lecture series will also be used to provide role models and exposure for young women to eminent scientists
* An Annual Distinguished Woman Scientist Award
* Three fellowships for women under the age of 35 years to pursue further post graduate experience or research. These will be offered in the following areas:
* African Woman Scientist Fellowship;
* Fellowship award in area where women's participation is traditionally low;
* Gender-specific research.

I would like to thank the assembled members of the Reference Group in taking up this major task in moving towards an implementation platform for all of the objectives that I have outlined.

I wish you well and am sure that together we will reach the objective of gender mainstreaming, of accepting and valuing equally the differences between women and men and the diverse roles they play in society. This is so succinctly captured as a fundamental tenet under The Bill of Rights of The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and marks the greater vision of human rights for all women and men irrespective of race, gender, class, age and disability.

I have great hopes for you and I wish you well.

I thank you.

Issued by Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
7 March 2003


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