Data analyst turns gender researcher: An Ethiopian scholar builds up locally rooted knowledge about equality

Aynalem Megersa from Ethiopia is one of the African researchers who received a University of Helsinki mobility grant for spring 2023.

“It’s been so productive!”

This is how Aynalem Megersa describes her stay in Finland. At her home institution – Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia – she investigates gender issues, focusing especially on women and their labour force participation. 

Since February Megersa has been a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki, working with Professor Elina Oinas of the Swedish School of Social Science in EDIT: Equality as Democracy in Transformation – a collaborative project between Finnish, Ethiopian and South African partners that began as early as 2018 but was delayed by the pandemic.

The project explores the ways that teaching and research on gender issues are locally rooted and relevant at selected top-tier African universities.

“We wish to examine the context as well. Do gender studies at our universities succeed in highlighting the perspective of African women and their influence and role in building society? This perspective is often missing in feminist writing because of its Western slant.”

Gender stands out in statistics

Megersa’s interest in gender studies developed quite by accident. She was originally a data analyst with a bachelor’s in statistics and a master’s in information systems.

After working in several social science projects, she came to notice that gender was always the variable that stood out and influenced findings on social phenomena.

“So I became interested in the issue and thought I’d like to delve into it in my future research. That’s why I wrote my doctoral thesis in development studies with a focus on gender.”

Megersa is keen to provide decision-makers with knowledge and information. She wishes to demonstrate the effects of policies on gender issues and hopes to help politicians make better decisions. 

“At my university department, we try to engage directly with the community through different platforms, for example, through direct discussions with women and girls in various personal situations in research, advocacy, and community service engagements. As our discussions often have a gender perspective, they play a sort of emancipatory role for both us and the women involved.”

New collaborations and perspectives

During her stay at the University of Helsinki, Megersa has had time to initiate new collaborations and projects as well. Together with Professor Oinas, she applied for and received funding to investigate the School Meals Coalition.

This initiative was established by the UN World Food Programme and the Finnish government after the pandemic when many schools around the world had closed, leaving a number of children without meals. The goal of the initiative is to support the development of school meals globally.

“We will document the establishment process and examine the success of the initiative to date and look at the challenges it has faced. We’re working hard at the moment and expect to have results ready by June.”

Oinas and Megersa have also applied for funding for a research project on the impact of school meals in Ethiopia. The idea is to concentrate on girls and their families and explore how school meals affect household social situations, income levels and food supply.

“I feel happy and satisfied to have completed these applications during my stay here and to have helped in this way to develop and maintain collaboration with the University of Helsinki.”

A partnership of equals

The key difference between the University of Helsinki and Megersa’s home university may be access to resources.

“The library and access to books and articles are definitely better here, so I’ve tried to utilise them during my stay.”

Megersa praises the work environment and atmosphere at the University of Helsinki and says her stay has been productive. In addition to the applications made, she has been able to attend two international conferences. 

“Elina Oinas and I have jointly presented a paper in a seminar, and I hope to present more before my departure. This allows me to obtain feedback from local researchers, which I consider very valuable.”

Megersa also values the equal terms of the partnership with the University of Helsinki and its researchers and believes the University is committed to strengthening its collaboration with African universities.

“The project being undertaken is planned collaboratively, and we develop research together, which I find important. I hope our collaboration will continue for a long time to come.”


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Africa Early Career Mobility Programme

The three-year pilot programme supports young talented African scholars and connects them with researchers from the University of Helsinki. The programme offers grants for periods of three to 10 months (€3,400 per month) to visit the University of Helsinki.

At the programme’s core is sustainability, and it is in fact closely related to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

All applications must be linked to one or more Sustainable Development Goals. The second application round of the programme has just concluded, and the third and last round will be launched in spring 2024. 

Further information