Girls can click away to bigger things

Monday February 22 2010

Susan Bakesha, the head of GRACE Africa

Susan Bakesha, the head of GRACE Africa Secretariat, in her office. In a male dominated society, she ensures that women all over Africa are empowered using ICT opportunities. PHOTO BY LYDIA NAMONO 

By Lydia Namono

As a young girl, Bakesha hoped to become a school inspector. Today, she wants every girl and woman to use ICT to achieve the best they can be.

When I first heard about the launch of the GRACE (Gender Research in Africa into ICT for Empowerment) book, African Women and ICTs: Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment, I had mixed feelings about what it had to offer. For some time I thought, “What have women got to do with information and communication technology (ICT) empowerment?”

On attending the launch though, and understanding what the book was about, I realised that it is a must-read for all the ladies out there. I was able to understand the struggles that women all over Africa are going through to become empowered through the unending ICT opportunities.

I first met Susan Bakesha at the Faculty of Food Science and Technology in Makerere. I was expectant of what she had to tell me. During her opening remarks earlier at the book launch, she had introduced herself as one of the researchers that contributed to the book.

I figured that that in itself should inspire the rest of the women out there to come out and explore the ICT opportunities because the world is now a global village. Without ICT knowledge, one may not be able to sail through life’s challenges smoothly.

Amidst the ongoing struggle for women empowerment, Bakesha’s research has contributed to the awareness of ICT opportunities for women in Uganda. In addition to being a researcher, Bakesha is the head of the GRACE Africa Secretariat.

“Being appointed to head the GRACE Africa Secretariat is an achievement I will eternally cherish,” Bakesha says. For a woman who has come a long way, there is indeed reason to be happy.

Born and raised in Jinja in Walukuba Estate, Bakesha has achieved one of her childhood dreams of becoming an important citizen in society. In a family of nine, she is the only girl who has attained university education.

Despite the hardships of growing up in a polygamous family, she has fought on courageously. She emphasises the phrase scarcity in abundance as what she grew up with. She says that such challenges trained her to face whatever came her way.

“I found it very difficult to handle this contradiction. It was by God’s grace and the intervention of my elder sister, Esther and her husband, the late Kayonjo Magala, that I managed to complete school. Such challenges taught me to work hard, be resilient and focused,” Bakesha says.

She also talks about other people in her life who inspired her.
“During my primary school, the district schools inspector was a lady. I admired her because every time she was to visit our school, we spent the previous day cleaning and beautifying the place.
“We had to appear very smart in our uniforms, ready to answer any question that she asked.

“I asked one of my teachers why we had to treat her that way. She told me that as a schools’ inspector, this lady was an important woman. Her report about our school would determine whether our school would continued operating or not. Above all, she told me that this lady was highly educated, with a degree from Makerere University. This stuck in my mind and I always asked God to help me study up to university and become important,” she reveals.

Aspiring for greatness
As a young girl, Bakesha hoped to become like the lady inspector and to achieve higher education.

“I have since discovered that challenges come with lessons to learn. One has to choose to concentrate more on turning them into opportunities than keeping a record of them,” Bakesha adds.
Bakesha also speaks highly of her grandmother, Susan Tayala for the impact she had on her life.

“She was my first teacher; she taught me the vernacular alphabet, which enabled me to learn how to read and write in vernacular without any formal training. She also owned property and a bank account in her names. I think, I first got exposure to the concept of women empowerment through her, although I could not interpret it that way then,” Bakesha narrates.

Bakesha attended All Saints Walukuba Church School from Primary One to Three, and Walukuba West Primary School for Primary Four to Seven. She then went to St. James Secondary School for O’ Level and Entebbe Secondary School for Advanced Level. She holds a Masters Degree in Women and Gender Studies which she attained in 2000, after her first Bachelor’s of Arts in Social Sciences (1995) on government sponsorship.

“Qualifying for university education on government sponsorship is one thing I’ll always cherish. The circumstances in my family were hostile to girls’ education that is why I regard this a special achievement,” she says.

In addition, her contribution to the GRACE project has been tremendously appreciated. The GRACE project consists of researchers from 12 African countries; in the East: Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, in the South: South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, in the West: Nigeria, Cameroon, and Senegal, and in the North: Egypt and Morocco and 14 research teams.

“The idea of GRACE was conceived in 2004 after women with a passion for ICT and empowerment met in Johannesburg and decided to form a research network to interrogate issues affecting women in the current ICT revolution,” she reveals. The actual research was done during 2005-2008 with Uganda represented by two research teams.
The project is fully funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and focuses on building context specific body of knowledge on how African women access and use ICTs. This in turn is expected to influence policies and interventions to address the barriers currently faced by women.

According to Bakesha’s research on ICTs as agents of change, the CD-ROM entitled Rural Women of Africa: Ideas of Earning Money, was used as a tool to provide business related information to grassroots women entrepreneurs.

“I found out that although the CD-ROM addressed most of the issues of access since the women attended the free classes, it was the translation of the information acquired into tangible business ideas that proved to be a challenge. I realised that ICT as tools might not have a problem, but it is the environment in which they’re operating.” Bakesha adds.

Her research led to another issue of gender inequality.
“I realised that our world is largely sexist and gendered. Since ICT don’t operate in a vacuum, the structure in which they operate determines whether they contribute to women’s empowerment or disempowerment.”

She discovered that the status quo was getting challenged; whenever women tried to apply the knowledge acquired, they faced opposition from their husbands who felt threatened by their new status.
“Some women would get the information, apply it and realise tangible results while others were threatened by their husbands and their businesses became stagnant,” says Bakesha.

Today, whoever contributes to improving the welfare of women is her role model. As one of the women activists in the country, Bakesha strongly discourages bride price because it has made women lose value. “Some people think if they’re not bought, they don’t have value.”

In its second phase, the GRACE project has expanded to include countries from the Middle East and Northern Africa (Mena).
The countries include Sudan, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Tunisia. “We would like to know how women in Arab countries are engaging with ICT and how this relates to their empowerment,” Bakesha concludes.

For a woman who has been able to make it against the odds, it looks like Bakesha will continue succeeding in what she is doing.