Just 1.3 per cent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa go to university, undermining efforts to lift the continent's economic performance and social equity.
Now the continent's leading female academics are seeking ways - including women's universities - to increase the proportion dramatically so that women can fulfil a greater role in development.
A network launched in Addis Ababa earlier this month, under Unesco auspices, will attempt to increase awareness among decision-makers of the need to increase participation by women.
A statement from the network, the Association for Strengthening Higher Education for Women in Africa, says: "Higher education strengthens the capacities of women to contribute to the new development impetus of their countries and of the continent as a whole."
The association will begin by linking to existing continental programmes for the advancement of women through the African Union, NEPAD, the Economic Commission for Africa and the Association of African Universities.
Gennet Zewdie, Ethiopia's Minister of Education, challenged the association to work towards higher education that would take the needs of ordinary women into consideration.
Founding members include:
* Former Swaziland University vice-chancellor Lydia Makhubu, president of Third World Organisation of Women in Science and a member of the Swaziland senate
* Aicha Bah Diallo, Unesco's assistant director for the education sector and a former minister of education in Guinea
* Balghis Badri, director of the Institute of Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Ahfad University for Women, in Sudan
* Lalla Ben Barka, deputy secretary general of the Economic Commission for Africa
* Fay Chung, director of the Unesco International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa, patron of Women's University in Africa and a former Zimbabwean Minister of Education and chief of education for Unicef
* Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the Open University
* Esther Mwaikambo, vice-chancellor of Hubert Kairuki Memorial University, Tanzania.