Women appointed to “team Abiy” in Ethiopia

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In a recent series of landmark announcements introducing gender parity into Ethiopia’s political landscape, Ethiopia’s new President Abiy Ahmed made the country and the world sit up and take notice of his presidency, once again. In this column, Bina Fernandez provides an overview of these changes and analyses what they might mean for the future of gender equality. 

On 16th October, Ahmed announced that 50% of his reassembled 20 member cabinet would be women. Remarkably, this was not just a token gesture – vital portfolios were handed over to women, most notably the ministries of Peace, Defence, Trade and Industry, Revenue, Labour and Social Affairs, and the Planning and Development Commission. The deceptively innocuous title of ‘Minister of Peace’ was conferred on Muferiat Kamil (formerly the Speaker of Parliament), whose portfolio includes the high stakes departments of National Intelligence and Security Service, the Information Network Security Agency, the Federal Police Commission; the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs; Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute; and the Main Department For Immigration and Nationality Affairs. This concentration of political power in Kamil’s hands has been subjected to muted criticism because she is known to be a staunch supporter of Ahmed. Nevertheless, these cabinet appointments of women to positions of real power is a significant step above the usual token gestures towards gender parity in politics, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Ahmed’s cabinet appointments were followed a week later by the appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female President. Formerly the UN under-secretary general and special representative of the secretary general to the African Union, Zewde was unanimously approved by the Ethiopian parliament to take up office in what is largely viewed as a ceremonial position (the Prime Minister holds executive power). The symbolic weight of her appointment cannot be understated however, on a continent where she is currently the only female head of state. She is the second Ethiopian woman in the last century to become head of state – the last woman to do so was the Empress Zewditu, who governed the country between 1916-1930. At her swearing-in ceremony, Sahle-Work emphasized the importance of respecting women and the need to build a “society that rejects the oppression of women”, and further cautioned those who thought she had already talked too much about women to expect even more talk about women’s rights during her 6-year term.

Most recently, on 1st November 2018, lawyer and women’s rights activist and Meaza Ashenafi was appointed as President of the Supreme Court. Ashenafi is renowned as the founder of the Ethio­pian Women Lawyers’ Association and was instrumental in starting the first women’s bank in the country, Enat Bank. Her most famous legal battle resulted in the prohibition of the abduction of young girls for marriage. Two further key appointments were of Billene Seyoum as Press Secretary and Helen Yosef as Deputy Secretary. Seyoum is an avowed feminist who has been on the board of Association of Women in Business, and is a blogger on Africanfeminism.

While women’s representation in the Ethiopian parliament was already at the relatively high rate of 38.8 per cent in 2017 (higher than the world average of 23.65 per cent), the present political appointments of women in Ethiopia have been welcomed as momentous and ground-breaking, in domestic and international media, and in social media feeds. What is remarkable about these appointments is that they are to powerful positions, that the women are exceptionally qualified, and that several of them are feminists or strong advocates for women’s rights.

However, while feminist activists within Ethiopia are celebrating the appointments, they are somewhat more cautious in their optimism about these harbingers of political change in a country that continues to hold deeply conservative and patriarchal values, and where violence against women and gender inequalities are endemic. The magnitude of gender inequalities in Ethiopia is indicated by the fact that in 2017 it ranked 173rd out of 189 countries, with a score of 0.846 on the Gender Development Index. Performance on key indicators of development are dismal: only 11.2 percent of adult women reach a secondary level of education compared to 21.4 percent of their male counterparts. For every 100,000 live births, 353 women die from pregnancy related causes; and female participation in the labour market is 77.2 percent compared to 87.8 for men.

Given this situation, it is likely that transformative change towards greater gender equality for Ethiopian women will take time, and deeper consideration of measures to bring about institutional and socio-cultural changes. As Aklile Solomon, the founder of the gender equality focused Yellow Movement observed, previous appointments of women ministers have done little to advance women’s rights and equality in the country, and if the present appointments are to be more than symbolic or inspirational, they would need to be followed up with appropriate policy interventions.

While the jury is still out on whether Abiy Ahmed’s strategy of engaging women will bear dividends for gender equality, there are two important implications that I want to draw attention to, as they point to the other reasons why these appointments were ‘savvy politics’ on the part of the Prime Minister. First, as a charismatic leader, Ahmed clearly understands the power of highly visible, symbolic acts in the theatre of politics. Through his appointment of a series of high-performing and feminist women in key political positions, he has put women’s rights squarely on the national agenda in Ethiopia, but importantly, he has also heightened his international political visibility and capital (which was already at high levels after the peace agreement ending over 20 years of conflict with Eritrea).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, he has made a strategic move that is likely to shore up “team Abiy” and consolidate his hold on power. As a reformist, Abiy Ahmed is navigating uncharted waters, contending with the power vacuum following the collapse of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDP) controlled state machinery, the radicalization of ethno-nationalist identities and ongoing ethnic violence that has produced 1.4 million internally displaced people in 2018. In this complex and highly volatile situation, Abiy has been critiqued for an individualistic approach that relies on personal charisma and a group of stalwart supporters. It could be argued that Ahmed seeks to use these appointment of women to cut past ethnic divisions and build a power base of personalities loyal to him. Whether the feminist women now on board ‘team Abiy’ will be compliant is, however, something we will have to wait and see. We are certainly in interesting times in Ethiopian politics.

Bina Fernandez is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia.

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