African Women in Higher Education: Progress, Potential, and Challenges- A SPECIAL REPORT

Oprah Winfrey poses with the Graduates at the inaugural graduation of the class of 2011 at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls on January 14, 2012 in Henley on Klip, South Africa.

On Saturday April 30, I attended the annual P.E.O. International Convention in Princeton, New Jersey. I was there, in part, to express my sincere gratitude to an audience of three hundred women as a recipient of a 2015-2016 International Peace Scholarship.

This scholarship provides financial support for international female students to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. and Canada.  Established in 1949, the fund has awarded more than $29 million in scholarships to 5,605 women from 174 different countries.

As a Sierra Leonean pursuing a master’s degree in international educational development at the University of Pennsylvania, I am honored to be one of 47 African women to have received this scholarship.  With this award, I have been able to further my research on gender education equality in Sub-Saharan Africa and never lose sight that African women possess untapped potential for global leadership and sustainable development.

Addressing the complex social, political, and economic challenges African women face in the 21st Century requires innovative solutions driven by sound female leadership. The newly rectified Sustainable Development Goals ushered in a critical moment for women to shape, lead, and achieve a renewed development agenda.  Strong female contenders for the next United Nations Secretary General include Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, and New Zealand’s Helen Clarke.

In the United States, Senator Hillary Clinton is likely to become the country’s first female President.  And, just recently, the United States Treasury confirmed Harriet Tubman as the first woman and first African-American to be the face of its currency.

As women begin to occupy some of the most powerful positions in the world, prioritizing access to higher education for African women remains essential to ensuring that we acquire the knowledge and advanced skills critical to take our seat at the table of global leadership.

Africa’s new investments in higher education are the result of significant strides in expanding access to primary and secondary schooling. Yet the “massification” of higher education‘ across the continent has not yielded comparable developments toward gender parity.

According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), Sub-Saharan Africa has made the most progress toward narrowing its educational attainment gender gap over 2014.  But disparities between male and female higher education gross enrollment rate (GER) ratios persist.

Rwanda, the highest ranked African country (6th) by GGGI has a male ratio of 8.64% and a female one of 6.64%. Chad, the lowest ranked African country, on the other hand (142nd)  has a male GER of 5.74% and a female GER of 1.4%.

A student in Ghana. Photo credit:

A student in Ghana. Photo credit:

These disparities are hindering countries across the continent from meeting their education objectives.  Africa will not be able to uncover the full economic and social benefits of post-secondary education unless women are better integrated into higher education systems.

Many issues are implicated in the fight to increase access to higher education among African women. The following four solutions could be implemented relatively quickly to increase the number of African women attending university:


  1. Minimizing cultural barriers: Social and cultural factors, such as early marriage and child pregnancy, limit opportunities for women to access higher education. While removing cultural barriers remains unrealistic, establishing flexible school hours and gender quota systems in higher education, as Ghana has accomplished, are methods of working within cultural norms.
  2. Financial Support: The $39 billion global education gap presents numerous financial constraints at all levels of education. Alternative sources of funding, such as private partnerships, should be emphasized.  But these partnerships should be limited in scope to avoid complete privatization, as with Liberia outsourcing its entire primary education system to Bridge International Academies.   Additionally, while international scholarships and programs such as the Fulbright Fellowship and Mandela’s Washington Fellowship are valuable, they are quite competitive, and many deserving students do not have the chance to participate in these programs.  African women should, therefore, be granted more opportunities to attend some of the best universities in the continent at affordable tuition rates.
  3. Academic Quality: Lessons learned from the successful expansion of primary and secondary schooling in Sub-Saharan Africa demonstrate that access to and higher quality of education are equally important. Projects such as UNESCO’s ICT program in support of Senegal’s “Bachelor-Master-Doctorate” reform should provide women with additional information and communication technology (ICT) support.
  4. Security and Advocacy: The 2014 abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in northern Nigeria underscores the urgency of enhancing security for African women.  Like all students, young women in Africa should have the opportunity to attend quality, safe schools where they are free from violence and sexual harassment.  Government intervention against extremism and NGO advocacy programs educating local communities on issues surrounding gender equality are essential to creating safe learning environments of women in and outside of school.

Advancing the global status of African women requires that colleges and universities, governments, international organizations, and others committed to gender equity expand access to safe and quality higher education.

There are many initiatives focused on this goal, and starting in June 2016, I will be in Senegal for a three-month research and development internship with UNESCO Dakar to support their work in gender and higher education.

During this period, I hope to support the organization’s work in providing other African women with the knowledge and advanced skills critical to transforming their communities and the world.

Figure . Ms. Peggy McDaniels (left) and myself at the P.E.O International women's convention in Princeton, NJ.

Figure . Ms. Peggy McDaniels (left) and myself at the P.E.O International women’s convention in Princeton, NJ.


Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: May 28, 2016


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