Brenda Gourley: More women in higher education will speed development in Africa

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The Independent Online

I had the pleasure in early August of spending time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, working with a remarkable group of women who were being hosted by the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA), and were determined to do something about the low participation of women in higher education in Africa. It was agreed that we form an organisation called the Association for Strengthening Higher Education for Women in Africa (ASHEWA). Founding members, including those present in Addis, are prominent female academics from countries including Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Africa.

The aim of ASHEWA is to do everything possible to promote higher education for women in African countries. We believe that by increasing the number of women enrolled in higher education we can achieve not only greater gender equality and social justice, but we can also ensure that issues of high relevance to women are included in the policies, research, development, teaching curricula and outreach programmes of higher education institutions.

At present only 1.3 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa are able to access university education - and increasing this number will have an impact on seven of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. Many of these goals have their root solutions in basic education, the relevance and quality of which depend on input from higher education in terms of curricular content, processes, teacher education and gender consciousness. Increased female enrolment at higher education level will also help to increase knowledge and awareness of maternal health, inform the combating of disease, and work towards environmental sustainability. In short, higher education strengthens the capacities of women to contribute to the new development impetus of their countries and of the African continent as a whole.

ASHEWA will seek to increase access to higher education for women through existing institutions, through open education, and through the establishment of specific colleges and universities for women. This process will be aided by the creation of distance education programmes specifically aimed at increasing educational access for women, and dealing with issues relevant to women and development. This will include utilising the internet and other forms of information and communication technology. ASHEWA will also establish and strengthen leadership programmes for women, create a research fund to strengthen the position of women researchers and to promote research related to women, and set up a scholarship fund for women at postgraduate level.

Success on such a scale will be achieved through partnership. ASHEWA is creating alliances with existing organisations and initiatives (such as The New Partnership for Africa's Development, the Economic Commission for Africa, and the Forum for African Women Educationalists) to strengthen access to, and relevance and quality of, higher education. ASHEWA will also work with existing international, regional and national educational institutions.

Women in Africa have a vital role to play in the development of their countries. By increasing their chances of enjoying the benefits of higher education we increase the chances of creating a peaceful and prosperous Africa. If you would like to help, or for further information on ASHEWA, please contact Dr. Fay Chung, or Professor Lydia Makhubu

Brenda Gourley is the Vice-Chancellor of The Open University