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A Country with a Woman Head of State, A Woman Supreme Court President, and 50% Women Ministers.

Article by: Zemdena Abebe with edits by Release Peace

Photo: Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde; image credit: J.Marchand

This article is an adaptation of an article by Zemdena Abebe as part of a publication collaboration with the Foreign & Security Policy section of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. 

A Sea Change Over Night

After his election in 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on an ambitious reform process. He created a cabinet with 50 percent of women ministers, and the first woman head of state -Sahle-Work Zewde (picture)- in the country’s modern history. It also led to the appointment of the chairperson of the National Election Board,  Birtukan Mideksa, who was the founder and leader of an opposition party and has been living in exile, and the appointment of the women’s rights champion Meaza Ashenafi as the country’s Supreme Court president. This series of high-profile positions filled by women was not only a sea change for Ethiopia, but also led the country to leapfrog much wealthier nations when it comes to women in politically powerful positions.

The Prelude to the Changes

Ethiopia is an interesting case showing that such changes do not come out of the blue: Those monumental reforms initiated by the new administration were triggered by various factors in the Ethiopian political discourse during the years prior, including a rising awareness of human and economic rights, a change in mindset in resisting oppression, demanding political and civil rights, and reclaiming equitable sharing of resources with the desire to end ethnic domination. It was also driven by the online and offline Qeerroo political organisation and an interconnectedness brought by the digital age and the #MeToo movement dating back all the way to 2006. Those trends brought about feminist ideological transformation, and the Ethiopian youth movement pushing for change supported by a diaspora community wide and far. Concerning the latter, over 400,000 Ethiopians live in the United States, more than 100,000 each in Lebanon and Israel, and other spread across the globe.

The Grassroots – Laying the Groundwork

The work of various women at different times has influenced the developments the country witnessed in 2018 and 2019, although their work is often invisible or altogether erased. Notably, this included the Ethiopian Student movementthe non-hierarchical non-gendered commune Awramba, the Girls’ Forum, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). Apart from the above-mentioned global trends, those organised groups factored heavily into a gradual change observed in Ethiopia that ultimately opened the way for high-level appointments to be possible – indeed to be socially conceivable. Those and other feminist organisations brought about a change in the mindset induced by advocacy and the promotion of cultural shifts. For those interested in learning more, other groups deeply involved in those changes included: Setaweetthe university-led Yellow MovementYEGNAthe UN’s annual Sixteen Days of Activism, and other women and girls empowerment initiatives borne out of local as well as international organisations.

The Moment Change Arrived

In 2018, the return to democratic politics facilitated the creation of new spaces for those civil society engagements, the international community, and other enablers that supported women’s rights and activists to take advantage of the right to organise, lobby, and act. Progressive reformers were the architects of formulating a sweeping gender policy in a country previously held back for decades by a track record of antagonism against women in power and their dispossession. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed injected hope for plural politics and multiculturalism by ensuring a record high of 50 percent of ministerial positions being filled by women. The high-ranking women appointees bring their lived experiences to the various positions that are unique to women with an unparalleled level of excellence and competency on the issues touching half the Ethiopian population.

How Much Disruption is Accepted?

With these new reforms, women are now in the room, but are they ‘allowed to’ make noise?  How loud are their voices in amplifying the concerns of everyday women of Ethiopia? How much feminist disruption is tolerated by the prime minister and others in power?  Ethiopian politics, and indeed Ethiopian society, was long defined by cultural determinism. In particular, regarding itself as a ‘culturally sensitive’ society for centuries followed the ideas of men as the sole decision makers in the public sphere. This phenomenon is no difference from European, Asian, or other societies and their histories. A further similarity could be found in that Ethiopia did not escape a common misconception that feminism is about ‘angry, man-hating women’ – a caricature of feminism in reaction to a specific horrific incident – an almost pseudo-concern for women while sustaining the social order of the time. 

Old Habits Die Hard

The original, high-spirited welcome, embrace, and joy following the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed by the public is now frequently replaced by resentment, rage and concerns about state fragility in the light of the conflict in Tigray, and accusations that the prime minister is not “man enough” to maintain law and order in the nation and act with urgency at all times. These persisting ideals of manliness show a cultural rift in the country that may be exemplary for many others, whether in the developing or industrialised world. The prime minister’s administration may be on point in terms of crafting pro-gender equality policies and aforementioned practices, but the strategic institutional restructuring and nationwide reform with a commitment to women’s representation and equality has only begun. The harsh reality remains that widespread sexualised violence against women persists in the country. A rape culture that sadly deserves the name and is mostly unreported continues. Likewise, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) and child marriages (statutory rape) are areas that the newly-found gender parity and women empowerment at the state’s highest levels have not yet changed. Old -even horrific- habits die hard.

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