International Women's Day 2013 - "The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum"

"The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights" Gloria Steinem

International Women's Day has been observed since the early 1900's and is annually held on March 8 to celebrate women's achievements throughout history and across nations. In 1977, the United Nations (UN) proclaimed it a "Day for Women's Rights and International Peace".

The 2013 theme is: 'The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum'. Over time and distance, the equal rights of women have progressed. The achievements of women are being celebrated while remaining vigilant and tenacious for further sustainable change. There is global momentum for championing women's equality.

In recent times much progress has been made to protect and promote women's rights. According to the United Nations, the majority of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. On average, women receive between 30 and 40% less pay than men earn for the same work. Women continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women worldwide

In a report by the National Academies Committee published in Inside Higher Education on 'The Real Barriers for Women in Science', women were seriously underrepresented on academic science and engineering faculties because of a mix of 'unintentional' biases and outdated institutional policies and structures. Women were 'very likely' to face discrimination, sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently, in every field of science and engineering. The discrimination results from a combination of built-in biases which make them less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical accomplishments, of evaluation criteria that 'contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women.'

The Caribbean Academy of Sciences (CAS) is a member of the Interamerican Network of Academies of Sciences (IANAS). IANAS motto is 'Science academies working together to promote science and technology for development, prosperity and equity in the Americas'. One of the objectives of the Caribbean Academy of Sciences is to recognise and reward outstanding performance and achievement within the region in the fields of science and technology.

In celebration of Women Day 2013, the Women for Science-Working Group (Wfs-WG) of the IANAS published a booklet on the biography of 16 prominent women scientists in the Academies. Dr. Grace Sirju-Charran of Trinidad and Tobago is among those featured in the IANAS booklet.

Dr. Grace Sirju-Charran of Trinidad and Tobago

Grace has spent thirty-seven years at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus, Trinidad and Tobago. Her initial doctoral research was on "Enzyme Genesis in Fresh and Aged Sweet Potato Tuber Tissue". This research provided the basis for further examination of the role of light in tuberisation of roots and stems of sweet potato and cassava. She was instrumental in the re-introduction of pachyrhizus sp. (jicama or yam bean). Her research included gender and the natural environment and perspectives and contributions of women scientists in the Caribbean. Other current interests are on the influence of light on the expression of genes involved in the storage organ formation in cassava and sweet potato using RT-PCR microarrays and a comparison of secondary and nutritional metabolites of root and stem tubers in sweet potato and cassava. She coordinated the Women and Development Studies Group at the St. Augustine Campus during the period 1988-1992 and held several seminars such on Women in Science and Gender Issues in Agriculture which culminated in the institutionalisation of Women and Development Studies as an academic discipline at the University of the West Indies in 1995. . One of her major achievements in this area was the introduction of 4-credit courses on 'Gender and Science' and 'Gender Issues in Agriculture'. Grace believes that 'almost everyone born on this planet has a natural curiosity about nature; but this however does not automatically translate into becoming a scientist.' In the biography, she reports that 'Equal participation in science by women is not just a 'gender' issue, but an economic one resulting in benefits to the whole society'.

In 2012, Dr. Sirju-Charran was awarded the Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2012 and in 2010 the UWI/Guardian Life Premium Award for Excellence in Teaching. She received a gold medal for her contribution to plant science awarded by the National Institute of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (NIHERST). Her biography was included in a publication on 'Caribbean Women in Science and their Careers'.

Dr. Sirju-Charran faced major challenges in science when she joined the Faculty to become the only female faculty in the Department of Botany, while still a PhD candidate and having as her colleagues, professors who taught her as an undergraduate student. Breaking the student/professor barrier and gaining the recognition of being equal at a time when 'gender studies' was unheard of, proved to be most difficult.

I am proud to be the biographer for Dr.Grace Sirju-Charran in highlighting the achievements of one of our prominent female Caribbean scientists.

Congrats to Grace on this recognition!

Professor Neela Badrie is the Caribbean focal point of the Wfs-WG of IANAS and is the Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, UWI, Trinidad and Tobago.