Sustainable science for women, by women – an inspiration to researchers of both sexes

This year we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. These courageous women marched in protest against laws aimed at disempowering women by drastically curtailing their freedom of movement. The theme of this year’s 2016 Women in Science Awards echoes the theme of that milestone event. “Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development”, is also the 2016 priority theme for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

The empowerment of women is enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, and is also a sine qua non for international sustainable development, described by the World Bank Group as development that “meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Decision-makers are challenged to balance social, economic and environmental needs if the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are to be met. The excellent work done by women scientists such as those profiled in this Women in Science Awards supplement provides the evidence on which such decisions will be based.

South Africa’s National Development Plan recognises research as the source of the knowledge and innovation needed to reverse poverty and inequality. The department of science and technology (DST) supports and promotes an array of science, technology and innovation initiatives to bring about sustainable development. The work on sustainable livelihoods gives priority to basic resources and services in the areas of energy, water, food (agriculture), information and communication technologies (ICT) and the bio-economy. Almost by definition, many of these initiatives have a special focus on women. It is useful to highlight a few of these initiatives.

The DST’s sanitation technology demonstration projects, including one in the Eastern Cape’s Cofimvaba district, focuses on identifying appropriate sanitation technologies that prioritise women and girls.

Much of the HIV research funded by the DST has focused on helping to prevent HIV infection in women, and understand the dynamics of an epidemic that sees a disproportionate number of young women infected.

The department’s work on hydrogen fuel cell technologies provides a secure supply of energy for schools and for the pharmacies and clinics through which healthcare is accessed. This work also seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while building the South African minerals beneficiation sector.

Between 2010 and 2015, the DST established 24 bio-economy-related projects that support women workers and entrepreneurs in various agro-ecological zones across the country. The projects focus on relatively new sectors such as indigenous medicinal plants, agri-ICT for small-scale farmers, and essential oil agro-processing. In partnership with private sector investors and suppliers, and using on-the-job training, several sustainable employment opportunities have been created.

The DST-supported Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research supports bio-manufacturing opportunities in cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals, and microbial fermentation. The centre serves to lower barriers to market entry, reduce development costs and shorten the time it takes to get products to market. It currently supports 18 small or medium-sized businesses, 10 of which are owned by women.

Women researchers have played a significant role in the projects supported by the DST in the National Nanotechnology Strategy. The DST-Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre has developed nanotechnology-enhanced water filtration membranes. These membranes have proved effective in treating wastewater from various sources, such as acid mine decant sites, and improving water quality to a standard that will allow for discharge into surface streams. The membranes are also effective in the treatment of groundwater for household use, as is being demonstrated in a pilot project in Madibogo village in the North West.

I am proud of the work that has been done by our women scientists, which is being recognised in the 2016 Women in Science Awards. However, the task of full empowerment of our women in science is not yet complete and I hope that the women profiled in this supplement will go from strength to strength, and continue to inspire other women (and men) to scientific curiosity and research excellence in service of our people.

Naledi Pandor
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