Women’s university v-c plans to expand across Africa

Founding and leading a successful private women’s university within a patriarchal society in a failed state is difficult, to say the least. But Hope Sadza’s ambition is bigger than that – to open campuses of the Zimbabwe-based Women’s University in Africa in countries across the continent.

Sadza teamed up with former Zimbabwean education minister Dr Fay Chung to launch the university in 2002, as a private institution supported by student fees and local and international donors.

At the time, Zimbabwe was in political turmoil and economic free-fall, opposition supporters were being killed and oppressed and Western countries were implementing sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle of mainly Zanu-PF party leaders.

Sadza pressed ahead with her dream of establishing a university for women only, but hit a snag when the government objected, citing – somewhat ironically, considering the scale of human rights violations under way at the time and the still traditional nature of Zimbabwean society – a constitutional clause that outlaws discrimination based on gender.

As a compromise, in order to be granted a charter to set up a university, Sadza agreed with the government on an enrolment ratio of 85% women and 15% men. But she stuck to her guns and was allowed to name the institution the Women’s University in Africa, although the authorities had also objected to the gender reference.

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Speaking to University World News about her university and its role, herself and higher education leadership, Sadza said that despite founding and leading a women’s university, she does not fully believe in quota systems for entry into higher education.

During her time at the University of Zimbabwe, she said, the proportion of women students hovered at around 30% to 35%, largely because not many were in the sciences.

“A quota system might help, but then it means that if you do not meet that number, you are taking women who do not qualify just to make the quota.” Sadza said quotas had pros and cons, but a better way was through education so that all students were qualified to be there.

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Still, she believes strongly in the need to tackle gender disparity and foster equity in accessing tertiary education, and the university was born out of deep concern that very few women – not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa – make it into university, compared to men.

And it seems her beliefs are shared by men and women alike. When the Women’s University in Africa opened in 2002 it enrolled 145 students – today it has 3,000.

Even though she made the government bend to allow some “positive discrimination”, Sadza said that her relationship with the authorities remains cordial and that the government values the work she is doing in contributing towards developing the country’s human resources base.


Before Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, Sadza’s parents told her that they had secured a place for her to go to England to study nursing. But she declined, preferring to study as a teacher in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called before gaining independence.

Her determination to stay in a country that was under an apartheid-style yoke, with minority white rule and few opportunities for black people, underlined her passion for teaching, she said – a vocation that eventually took her to a career in higher education.

Sadza attended Waddilove High School – a top secondary school at a Methodist mission station – in Goromonzi, a rural area just south-east of the capital Harare. She then trained as a teacher at the Waddilove Training Institution.

“I think part of the passion for being a teacher, for opening a women’s university in Africa, is from there – and seeing my mother, a teacher who was always teaching,” Sadza said.

But after a stint in the teaching profession, Sadza did ultimately leave Zimbabwe and obtained a degree in public management followed by a BSc in public administration from the University of Missouri in the United States. She holds a PhD in the same field from the University of Zimbabwe.

Sadza returned to Zimbabwe in 1980, the year of independence, and worked as a public service commissioner and a parastatals services commissioner. She became a member of several professional organisations and was invited to join numerous boards, including the Institute of Directors Zimbabwe, Barclays Bank and Delta Corporation.

She built a formidable reputation as an administrator and academic, including at the University of Zimbabwe, and won several awards along with a Fulbright scholarship in 2009, for her work in co-founding and leading the Women’s University in Africa.

Founding the university

One of Sadza’s public roles was on the board of the University of Zimbabwe, the country’s oldest higher education institution, which along with her years as a public service commissioner opened her eyes to the need for a women’s university in Africa, she told University World News.

As a public service commissioner, she discovered that many women were doing menial jobs in offices as a result of a lack of qualifications.

“They would not have any degrees. They would be doing the work very well, but they did not have this magic of a degree certificate. And I thought, are we going to lose a whole generation of these women who will not have a degree? And they will be in offices sweeping, as secretaries, and yet they could run those offices as administrators.

“This is why I started the Women’s University in Africa.”

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Her involvement with the council of the University of Zimbabwe led to the realisation that it was possible for her to start a higher education institution.

“When I started I had no money. But I said, with an idea you can move. With an idea and compassion and commitment, you can ride over all the challenges.

“It was lack of money right at the beginning, and it was also the people’s attitude.” People said there was no woman – or indeed person – who could start a university; that governments started universities.

“When I was a public service commissioner, I used to sit on the council of the University of Zimbabwe. I realised there isn’t a lot of magic about opening a university. There’s a lot of opportunity, there are people out there who want to go to university. And I think it was my passion to say, let’s do our part and teach them and let them get a university education.”

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What are your strengths and weaknesses

‘My greatest weakness is also a strength. Sometimes I overwork myself. It’s a weakness. You should try to say, ‘This much I’ve done’…Sometimes I cannot say no, which is a weakness. I’ll be asked and I’ll want to do it because, I feel a little bit guilty to say ‘I cannot do it.’”

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In the case of the new university, though, Sadza kept her eye on the goal.

“My major strengths are sticking to whatever I have said I will do. If I fail at first, I will keep on striving to win whatever it is. I think that is a strength because sometimes people, when they fail once, give up. I don’t give up.

“Even if I am asking for something; I am asking for money for my university and people say 'no'. I go back and plead for them to see that I need this money to grow this university. I have staying power,” Sadza said.

The university that emerged from the efforts of this strong-willed women was not meant only for Zimbabwean women, but for all women in Africa, as part of her passion to develop education on the continent.

She has encouraged women from other African nations to enrol, and today the Women’s University in Africa has students from 14 African countries including Angola, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, South Africa and others.

Sadza also harbours an ambition to establish the Women’s University in Africa in a number of countries across the continent.

Who is the person who has influenced you the most?

Sadza said she gained the belief that she could be a trailblazer from her mother, a teacher and a radio personality, who used to do radio theatre. “She believed in me as a daughter. She always said, ‘There’s no discrimination in this house.’”

Her mother insisted that her children – two boys and four girls – did the same amount of work. “She believed in fairness. She would be so fair sometimes I thought, ‘This doesn’t happen in the real world.’ She said, ‘It does happen but you don’t want to accept that.’

“She was a pillar of strength in telling me how to get on in the world and she did not believe that you can sit around and do nothing,” recalled Sadza.

“She would say when we come back from school, ‘What have you done today?' ‘We played games.’ She said, ‘I am not interested in you playing games. I am interested in you leading something. Did you create something? Were you good to some people?’ and so forth.

“These questions meant nothing to me because I was young then and my friends would laugh at me and say, ‘Hope’s mother is so tough on her. She is always asking her to do things,’” Sadza recalled.

“She was a leader in church, she was a leader in the community, and I think that was my role model.” The questions and the attitude helped Sadza to get on in the world, and it is true to say that she is still doing things.

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Tell us about your style of leadership

Sadza said that her approach to leadership is to ask board members and staff to suggest solutions. This helps to ensure that they 'own' decisions made and the implementation of strategies.

This is also helpful in terms of time and management, as she has many vice-chancellor duties to content with as well as sitting on several company boards, and being a wife, and a mother to two children.

She has an open door policy, allowing subordinates to escalate matters to her if they feel their superiors are not attending to them adequately. And, Sadza said, she sticks to timetables, which enables her to manage her time.

What are the main challenges the university faces?

Things are certainly not all rosy. The university faces many challenges, Sadza said, and the biggest is lack of infrastructure – although there are plans to construct facilities in Marondera, 75 kilometres from Harare.

Another challenge is that most women who attend the university have children and can encounter difficulties with childcare. A third hurdle is introducing PhD studies.

The Women’s University in Africa is currently located opposite the University of Zimbabwe, and this enables the private university to employ some of the public institution’s lecturers on a part-time basis.

Research has shown that many private higher education institutions across Africa draw on public sector lecturers to teach, to top up low salaries, and that this could be impacting on education quality in public institutions and time spent on research.

But in African countries under enormous pressure to provide more student places in the face of soaring demand for higher education, private institutions are improving access and they have little option – given chronic shortages of academics – to draw on the public sector.

Sadza said Zimbabwe not only had an acute shortage of qualified academic staff but also of higher education places, with 14 small to medium-sized institutions serving 14 million people: 10 public universities, three church-run institutions and the private women’s university.

What is her vision going forward?

“My vision is to enter the whole of Africa,” Sadza said.

“My vision is to have a PhD programme at the Women’s University in Africa, and that’s the next hurdle that we’ve got to pass. Because we are talking about women with no degrees, but we are also talking about women with degrees who attained masters a long time ago and are saying, ‘We want to do PhDs.’

“I am raring to go in the community, because in the rural areas, that’s where they need education,” Sadza said. “Without that education they will not even understand what development is. So that’s my vision, to go down to the rural areas.”

Sadza has already started a programme called The University Entering the Rural Areas, which provides people with knowledge in their own localities.

When the university enters a rural area, it asks people what their needs are, in line with a policy to undertake needs assessments in order to introduce courses that are relevant, such as a three-week course on growing tomatoes. “Then they will know, there is a university that can train you in your locality.

“'Bringing the university to the people!' That is our motto,” said Sadza.

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