The number of women working in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields in South Africa has not been very large.
But programs aimed at girls there are beginning to change that. TechnoGirl is one example. Over about ten years, the program has worked to bring 11,000 high-school girls into these areas of study known as the STEM fields.
TechnoGirl began in 2004 through a partnership. UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, the South Africa Department of Education and Uweso Trust joined their efforts to develop TechnoGirl.
Each year, the program places girls between the ages of 15 and 18 in more than 200 companies in South Africa. The girls must be doing exceptionally well in school to qualify.
After they are chosen, the girls stay at the companies for a three-year-period and receive mentorship from STEM professionals. The mentors also keep in contact with them throughout their university studies.
Smart girls, few opportunities
Raquel Sorota was a student in the program.
She grew up in Johannesburg's Tembisa township with very little opportunity. She now works as a risk engineer at a top South African insurance company.
Sorota was chosen for the program in 2009. Now, at age 24, she says it has changed her life.
"So I think a lot of what I took from the program was how it exposed me to the world of engineering. So I think for the longest time I never knew of how broad that world was and that I could have a place within that world, most importantly."
Staff Sithole leads the company Uweso Trust and is the founder of TechnoGirl.
She said the goal is more than just creating a new crop of workers. It is about changing the world — and who runs it, she said. And, through the program, she aims to support gender equality in South Africa.
For high school students Gugulethu Zungu and Queen Makaile, the barriers are more than just lack of opportunity. Both have physical disabilities. They were born with rare genetic defects that have affected their appearance and health. Both were chosen to be in the program this year for their high marks in math and science.
Zungu says the program led her to identify her dream career — forensics — and imagine possibilities beyond it.
"I like investigating and solving mysteries. And it actually makes me believe that, indeed, nothing is impossible. You just have to think out of the box."
Makaile, who has struggled with hearing and vision problems because of her defect, says she now wants to become a journalist. She wants to show the world that her thoughts matter more than her looks.
Since the program began, more than 5,000 young women have received scholarships to colleges and universities.
For these girls, they say nothing will stand in their way.
I'm Alice Bryant.
Anita Powell reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English with additional information from UNICEF. The editor was Mario Ritter.