SADC’s charter aimed at women and STEM is eventually active

The charter that establishes the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Organisation has come into force to pave the way for more girls and women to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the region.

While more women are now accessing tertiary education globally, fewer are pursuing STEM programmes and the SADC region is no exception.

According to the United Nations’ 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, only 35% of students in STEM disciplines worldwide are women. (The 2023 report is under development.)

The SADC charter acts as a strategy to increase the number of women in STEM subjects for regional countries. It aims to develop a regional database of women in STEM, as well as facilitate the establishment of fully functional networks; lobby for more women representation in decision- and policy-making bodies and positions relating to STEM; and build stronger partnerships between women scientists, engineers, technologists and their communities.

The charter also requires all SADC member states to establish national women in science, engineering, and technology (WISET) chapters.

Idea voiced a decade ago

Further functions are to promote gender mainstreaming in science, engineering, technology and innovation; commission research on key issues relevant to the improvement of women’s participation in science, technology, and innovation (STI) in the SADC region and organise conferences, seminars and workshops on research and research skills for women and girls in STI and SADC women entrepreneurs.

The SADC’s WISET organisation, established under Article 3 of the charter, was approved in 2017, a decade after the idea was first mooted. It comes into force after the required two-thirds of states have ratified it, according to a statement issued on 28 June 2023 after a meeting of the SADC ministers responsible for education and training and science and technology held in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The statement said ministers considered progress on the implementation of the charter establishing the WISET organisation (WISETO). Eleven member states signed the charter, bringing the total to a two-thirds majority of signatures. The next steps are to develop a roadmap to establish WISETO. The ministers directed the SADC Secretariat to initiate a process to identify the host country for the WISETO and report at the next meeting in 2024.

The ministers also considered a report from the meeting of the special technical committee on certification and accreditation which provides the roadmap for the various implementation strategies towards the implementation of the Southern African Development Community Qualifications Framework (SADCQF) over the next four years.

UNESCO programmes endorsed

The SADCQF covers higher education and technical and vocational education and training. The ministers proposed reviewing the SADCQF guidelines and manuals on recognition of prior learning, the SADC credit accumulation transfers systems, and the SADC recognition manual.

The statement said the ministers decided that qualifications frameworks should be referenced rather than aligned to the SADCQF, focusing on new developments such as digitalisation, microcredentials and common profiles of qualifications.

Recommendations from UNESCO were endorsed to implement programmes in open science and access in line with the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, which provides an international framework for open science policy and practice that recognises disciplinary and regional differences in open-science perspectives.

The ministers took note of the Southern African sub-Regional Forum on Artificial Intelligence (AI), in Windhoek (Namibia) in September 2022 under the theme, ‘Towards a sustainable development-oriented and ethical use of artificial intelligence. The forum adopted the Windhoek Statement on Artificial Intelligence, recognising that AI is fast transforming the world and the future of humanity and recommended the development and ethical use of AI in Southern Africa.

Stakeholders engaging about new university

The draft SADC Digital Transformation Strategy, or DTS, with the overarching objective of driving and accelerating the strategic adoption of digital technologies in all SADC member states was also considered.

According to the statement, the SADC deputy executive secretary for regional integration, Angele Makombo N’Tumba, highlighted the importance of the approved SADC Vision 2050 and Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan, or RISDP, (2020-30). Education and training and science, technology and innovation are critical components of regional integration under Pillar 1 of Industrial Development and Market Integration and Pillar 3 of Social and Human Capital Development in both plans.

Progress towards operationalising the SADC University of Transformation (SUT) was also discussed.

Once established, the SUT “will focus on entrepreneurship, innovation, commercialisation, technology transfer, enterprise development, digital and knowledge economy to support the SADC industrialisation agenda”, the statement reads. The SADC Secretariat, with the financial support of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and technical support from the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), convened the Vice-Chancellors Meeting in January 2023 about operationalising the SUT. Further engagement with other stakeholders was recommended at that meeting.