Limited fields of study for women in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — The Globe and Mail

Thato Mokoena, current South African delegate for the G(irls)20 Summit 2012, poses in Alexandra, her native township, May 2012 (Benedicte Kurzen for The Globe and Mail/Benedicte Kurzen for The Globe and Mail)

In her first year of university, Thato Makoena came close to quitting. She had so little money that she couldn’t even afford meals without help from her roommate.

Her father, a truck driver on a modest income, was unable to cover her tuition, and her mother was unemployed. “It was horrible,” she remembers. “They would call me and tell me there was no food at home.”

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Ms. Mokoena, who grew up in one of Johannesburg’s poorest townships, decided to work even harder. At the end of her first year at the University of Pretoria, she landed a bursary, and then found help from a charitable foundation, allowing her to keep studying for her bachelor of commerce degree.

Today, as a delegate to the G(irls)20 Summit in Mexico, she plans to set up a mentoring program to help other female students to conquer the barriers to higher education.

When the summit is over, Ms. Mokoena hopes to offer mentoring to the top 10 female students at each of the five high schools in her township. She wants to help them apply to universities, navigate the difficult bureaucratic process and find financial support for their costs. “They don’t even know where to start, or where to get the application forms,” she says.

South African girls are expected to study the “service fields,” and they are rarely encouraged to study mathematics, finance or engineering, she says.

“I want to give that privilege to other girls,” the 20-year-old student says. “There’s an assumption that a girl can’t be an engineer or a pilot or a mining technician. And I want to break that belief.”

Getting into university – and staying there – is a huge challenge in South Africa, where the school system in most townships and rural areas is notoriously bad. It’s even tougher for young women like Ms. Mokoena, who grew up in crime-ridden Alexandra township, where few people ever went to university.

“It was really chaotic,” she says. “Later, you realize that you were taught to think of crime as a normal thing. The pregnancy rate in young girls is very high. I know one child whose parents both died of HIV. She had nowhere to go.”

At the University of Pretoria, she is majoring in economics and financial management, and she hopes some day to work for the United Nations or another international organization. She wants to focus on fiscal policy and economic issues, seeing them as the key to solving the social ills of unemployment and poverty that she saw in “Alex” township as a young girl.

“Alex made me think outside of the box,” she said. “I want to be different. I have a real passionate heart for economics and helping people. I think this is what I was born for – helping people and working for change.”

She has already been active in charity work: collecting old clothing to give to poor people in a township near Pretoria, and teaching as a volunteer at a township school.

Ms. Mokoena has never been outside South Africa before – never even been on an airplane – and she will need to keep studying for her university exams as she attends the G(irls)20 Summit. But she is convinced that the summit will help her to help other girls, so that they won’t suffer as she did in her first year of university.

“I thought the only solution was to give up and drop out of school and look for a job,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what to do – I couldn’t rob a bank or go into prostitution. It was very stressful. I don’t want other girls to go through that trauma.”