The Association for Strengthening Higher Education for Women in Africa (ASHEWA), a non-governmental organization registered in Swaziland, was founded in 2004. ASHEWA promotes the empowerment of women by increasing the number of women enrolled in higher education and by ensuring that issues of high relevance to women are included in the research, development and teaching curricula of universities and other insitutions of higher education in African countries.

Introduction and Background
Although many new opportunities are opening up for women, most women are not in a position to seize them. The reasons for this are complex, including cultural and financial constraints which lead to fewer women going to secondary and tertiary education than men. However, the low percentage of women able to access tertiary education, in particular in science and technology fields, creates one of the most serious barriers to the empowerment of women in both the political and economic sectors. Yet it is clear that the professional development of women is essential for promoting real and sustainable development in this age of science and technology domination. A critical mass of women leaders with university and higher level education is needed in each country in order to bring about meaningful and significant empowerment.

The Ouagadougou Declaration on the Education of Girls (1993) acknowledged that girls’ education “contributes to improved quality of life and enhances national development through

  •  increased economic production rates;
  •  improved hygiene and nutritional practices;
  •  reduced child and maternal mortality rate;
  •  reduced fertility rate.”

Yet in the area of education, girls and women are much more seriously disadvantaged than boys and men. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), in 2000, 52.0% of women were literate as compared to 68.9% of men ; at primary school level only 76.3% of girls as compared to 86.7% of boys were enrolled ; at secondary school level, only 23.8% of girls as compared to 29.1% of boys were enrolled . Tertiary education enrolments show a similar disparity, with 1.3% of women as compared to 3.3% of men in the relevant age group being able to access this level of education in 2000 .

Historically, women have played a very significant role in helping men to build power bases. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women have exercised considerable power in politics, for example bringing into and maintaining in power such traditional political leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Hastings Banda, Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe, yet women themselves are not well represented in the higher echelons of political power. According to the UNDP Report women’s political participation in Sub-Saharan Africa varied from a low of 1.3% to a high of 19.0% in 1996.

Only 37.8% of women were actively involved in economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of them working mainly as unpaid family workers . There is today a global consensus that women’s issues are important from the development and human resource management points of view, and not just from the social equity perspective.

Within the agricultural production process, it is an irony of immense developmental implication to note that 80% of producers in Africa are women, yet only 69% of female farmers receive agricultural extension visits compared to 97% of male farmers. Worse still, only 7% of the extension agents are women. Nevertheless, the sustenance of the agricultural sector and the quest for food security in the African Region depends largely on women.

At present there are four women’s universities in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are:

” Ahfad University for Women, Omdurman, Sudan, a private university ” Women’s University, Khartoum, Sudan, a state university ” Kiriri Women’s University, Nairobi, Kenya, a private university ” Women’s University in Africa (WUA), Marondera, Zimbabwe, a private university.

The two women’s universities in Sudan are the longest established as well as the largest and most developed. The Ahfad Women’s University, situated in Omdurman, Sudan, was originally established as the Ahfad Girls’ College in 1907. It began offering undergraduate degrees in 1984 as a University College, and was officially upgraded to a university in 1995. It is a private university and has an enrolment of about 6 000 students. Its objectives include the development of graduates as instruments of change at the personal, family and national levels. The University includes five schools:

- the School of Family Sciences comprising Food and Nutritional Science; Food Science and Food Technology; and Community Health Management. – the School of Psychology and Pre-School Education comprising Health, Psychology and Counselling; Early Childhood Education; and the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. – the School of Organizational Management comprising management and administration, finance, economics and development. – the School of Rural Extension, Education and Development which is an inter-disciplinary programme including food production, child-care, appropriate technology, health development and education in rural communities. – and the School of Medicine which has an emphasis on promoting preventive community health rather than the traditional curative orientation.

Ahfad University for Women has had a major impact on rural development for women, running short courses of 2 weeks’ to 2 months’ duration specifically tailored for rural development. The School of Medicine has had an impact on the health of women by providing about 50 doctors a year.

The Women’s University in Khartoum is a state university, originally part of Khartoum University, but now administered separately. It has an enrolment of over 10 000 students. One of the effects of having two women’s universities in the Sudan is that the percentage of women with access to university is almost equal to that of men, with 2.7% of women having access to university education as compared to 3.1% of men. This is in contrast to the picture in most of Sub-Saharan Africa where women students are less than a third of the total. It is notable that women professionals play an important role in university teaching in the Sudan. They also hold a number of professional positions in both the public and private sectors.

Kiriri Women’s University presently concentrates on degree programmes in mathematics and on information and communications technologies. Since it has only been in existence for two years its impact is yet to be felt.

The Women’s University in Africa (WUA), presently temporarily located at the Educational Services Centre, Harare, is concentrating on providing first degree education to middle level professional women who have not previously been to university in the areas of agriculture and horticulture; management; social sciences; and health science. These have been identified as important areas for women. Most of the participants are over 40 years of age, and have been working in a professional capacity, e.g. as agricultural extension workers, as teachers, in the police, etc. Whilst WUA concentrates specifically on areas of importance to women, it also accepts men students interested in obtaining degrees in these areas. However 70% of the students in WUA are women.