File picture: Bongiwe Mchunu / Independent Media.
There is an old African proverb which says “if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate the whole nation”.

This statement has never been more poignant, given that even in today’s world where we preach "equal opportunities for all", women are still largely excluded from the educational system - particularly in Africa.

And within that exclusion, it also holds that women are severely under-represented in many professional occupations. One of these is engineering, where there is an overall shortage anyway.

According to a 2016 Unicef report, although progress has been made in recent years, girls continue to be severely disadvantaged and excluded from education systems.

A study conducted by the Unesco Institute for Statistics in 2015 showed that an estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in 2013. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest proportion of countries with gender parity.

The truth is we cannot afford to ignore the fact that girls’ education is an intrinsic right and critical lever to reaching development objectives. Education helps break the cycle of poverty, as educated women are less likely to marry young or against their will; are more likely to have healthy babies and to send their children to schoo.

Quality learning

Girls’ education is essential to achieve quality learning relevant to the 21st century, as well as increased academic performance. Adolescent girls that attend school acquire information and skills that lead to increased earning power which allows them to delay marriage and childbearing.

A major focus area should be the number of women entering the engineering profession. It is globally acknowledged that while the number of female engineers has increased since the early 1980s, the proportion of female to male engineers still has a long way to go. In South Africa fewer women enter the engineering profession than the world average.

Girls in South Africa should be encouraged to take science subjects, not only to pursue a scientific or technological career, but also girls who would then be able to apply scientific concepts in their daily lives. Taking science subjects should not only be seen as a vocation, but as a means to develop the scientific and technological culture necessary for development.

The development of infrastructure by civil engineers contribute to the eradication of diseases and poverty by developing better water supplies, municipal sewerage systems, waste water treatment plants to designs of buildings that protect us from natural hazards and provide health care, to improved agriculture through water resource developments. Women are the greatest resource any country has.

Empowered

That is why Sanral is pursuing a programme that aims to ensure that as many girls as possible are prepared and empowered to enter the engineering profession, particularly civil engineering.

We want as many women as possible to make their mark by being involved in the construction and modernisation of the country’s much needed road infrastructure.

We would like to see more women designing and constructing bridges, building new roads and modernising the country’s freeways and more importantly, owning and managing their own construction companies.

This can only be achieved if society invests in the education and training of young girls, as this lays a solid foundation for the future. At Sanral we are proud of doing exactly that, by offering bursaries, scholarships and learnership opportunities to deserving students across the country, particularly girls. An important factor is that most of these beneficiaries end up being employed by Sanral. Many of these women have gone on to managing big engineering projects across the country, projects which were traditionally reserved for men.

Because our country is one of equal opportunities, we need to facilitate the entry of as many women into the engineering field as possible as well as dispel the myth that it is difficult for women to make it in civil engineering.

Heidi Harper is the corporate services executive at the SA National Roads Agency.

- BUSINESS REPORT