“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”
Following the resignation of President Mulatu Teshome in October 2018, Ethiopia’s Parliament unanimously appointed the country’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Currently, President Sahle-Work is the only serving female head of state in Africa, and, after being sworn in, has promised to dedicate herself to making gender equality a reality in Ethiopia. “I know today I have said a lot about female empowerment, but expect me to be even more vocal in the coming years about female rights and equality,” Sahle-Work said. Six months into her presidency, one clearly sees that she can bring progress towards narrowing the gender gap and realizing true equality in Ethiopia.
Prior to her appointment as president, Sahle-Work served as the United Nations Special Representative of Secretary-General and the Head of the UN Office to the African Union. She has held several other UN positions, including Head of Peace-Building in the Central African Republic. In addition, she has a long diplomatic track record, having served as an ambassador for Ethiopia to France, Djibouti, and Senegal. Her election to the largely ceremonial position comes a week after a cabinet reorganization by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed resulted in women getting half of the government’s top ministerial positions. This has sent a strong message in Ethiopia, as reflected when Fitsum Arega, the former Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, said, “In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future, but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life,”.
Throughout many parts of Africa, patriarchal structures and traditional beliefs have restricted women from achieving their potential. In Ethiopia particularly, the unbalanced power relation between genders has negatively impacted women and their agency, their human capital development, and their ability to contribute equitably to national growth and prosperity. Despite the emergence of a female president, attitudes, beliefs, and practices that serve to exclude women are still deeply entrenched in the country.
The Ethiopian government has formulated several laws and policies to promote gender equality. The Constitution provides equal right for women and prohibits laws and traditions that are against the dignity and well being of women. Specifically, Article 35(3) of the Constitution states that, “men and women are equal before and under the law and where gender inequalities exist, the Constitution provides for the implementation of affirmative measures to address these imbalances.” Moreover, the government has issued the National Policy on Women in 1993 and incorporated gender issues within different national policies, including education and training, health, and more. Furthermore, the country has signed several international women’s rights conventions, such as Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPA), in order to eliminate gender discrimination and encourage women to actively participate in the public sphere. Nevertheless, a disconnect remains between Ethiopia’s positive legal framework and the effectiveness of gender equality laws. This is because women’s participation in politics and their involvement in policy formulation is still very low. They are largely underrepresented in decision-making positions, specifically in middle and higher leadership positions. Although the number of seats held by women in the Parliament has increased since 1995, and reached 39 percent as of 2018, empowerment without power is not enough. Hence, women should be given the chance to actively participate in the decision-making process on equal terms with men and their voices should be heard.
The improved political representation of women in the federal government would help to accelerate national development. The empowerment and inclusion of women not only addresses gender equality, but also other critical issues. President Sahle-Work in her opening speech on the International Women’s day boldly said, “We can’t achieve the 17 sustainable development goals without the full participation of half of the humanity… gender equality and women empowerment should be our core activities,”. It is indeed true that without the active participation of women and involvement in decision-making, the goals of equality, democracy, development, and peace cannot be achieved. Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed has said that the appointment of women in the leadership positions in Ethiopia can help to combat the deep-rooted corruption and build a more accountable and transparent system.
Considering the limited role of the president’s constitutional power and functions, Sahle-Work might not be able to accomplish such an ambitious scope of goals. However, I believe that, together with the newly appointed women officials, she will bring a new perspective to governance issues and women’s empowerment in Ethiopia. Furthermore, her appointment will be an inspiration to many young girls and women to believe that it is possible to challenge the status quo and become leaders. This hope can be a driving force going forward.