Elections 2021 In-depth

EIEP: Ethiopian women’s modern rise hits ancient glass ceiling

In spite of pioneering policies and progressive laws, traditional obstacles remain to a fairer representation of women in Ethiopian politics.

This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP) series.

When Ethiopia’s freshly appointed ministers took their oath of office on 16 October 2018, it made headlines around the world. Overnight, the country emerged as a leader in gender parity on the continent, with the appointment of 10 women ministers in the restructured 20-member cabinet.

One of the many reforms Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government would undertake, it was lauded both internationally and at home—not only for the equal share of seats given to women at this high-level ministerial table but for their appointment in posts never before held by their fellows. Most notable were the country’s first Minister of Peace, Muferiat Kemal, and Minister of Defence, Aisha Mohammed.

A few days later, Sahle-Work Zewde broke yet another record and became the country’s first female president.

Nearly 30 years ago, as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took command of the country, there had been only one ministerial position held by a woman, despite females occupying 30 percent of the party’s ranks. Since then, the representation of women has grown rapidly from women holding just 13 out of 547 seats following the first election in 1995, to, so far, 210 female parliamentarians.

But while there was wide acclaim for the 2018 ministerial appointments, the cabinet quickly lost its gender parity. Less than a year after her appointment, Aisha was replaced by Lemma Megersa at defense and three other women ministers were reshuffled in the following two years, attributed to reforms or falling out with the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, among the congratulatory remarks, there had been some very critical responses to the appointment of Aisha.

“The way people reacted to a woman holding that position was shocking,” said Lensa Biyena, head of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. “You would think the country had fallen under siege.”

This sentiment around Aisha’s appointment is an example of the barriers to the political empowerment of Ethiopian women: archaic societal norms that place women in traditional roles, some that have remained largely unchanged to this day.

Aisha’s replacement, along with that of her female colleagues, signals yet another roadblock in achieving lasting change in Ethiopian women’s political participation and empowerment—the lack of institutional and legal frameworks for ensuring women’s participation in politics.

In their absence, the role and influence of women is tied to the benevolence of those who wield power.

Do or die politics

In September 2019, the country embarked on revising its 28-year-old national policy on women and commissioned Includovate, an Ethio-Australian research institute, to do the work.

Initially crafted with the intention to advance and institutionalize women’s rights in the country across economic, social, and political sectors, the review was intended to see if and to what extent the policy had achieved its goals.

Among a series of issues, the single most common experience collected from across 68 weredas was the lack of safety. Women like Kwat Ojwato, head of the Women, Youth and Children Affairs Bureau in the Gambela People’s Liberation Democratic Party are a testament to this.

When the EPRDF emerged victorious from the trenches of guerrilla warfare in 1991, many soldiers made their way back home from battle.

Kwat, a 23-year old mother of one at the time, was enlisted at one of the camps in Gambella to register these returning soldiers that had left to join the fight alongside the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the founding and leading faction of the EPRDF.

Born and raised in Gambella, Kwat had given birth to her first child four years prior when she was 19, and had been forced to drop out of school. Her work at the soldiers’ campsite, her first gainful employment, led to her selection for “political training” in the capital, where her husband lived while studying at Addis Abeba University.

“There were two other women trainees like me,” she said. “All our husbands were studying in the university at the time.”

After reaching their training site, the two other women with Kwat made their way back to Gambella, upon their husbands’ orders. Kwat’s husband was also unhappy with her decision to go there for the training.

“He accused me of coming to Addis to be a sex worker,” she said. “He said that he was pursuing his education so he could take care of us, his family. But I told him I also wanted to learn and that I, too, could have been where he was if I hadn’t given birth at a young age.”

Kwat’s defiance cost her dearly that night as her husband beat her bloody until the hotel staff intervened.

“Gambella men don’t like it when women are involved in politics,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to let anyone decide my fate for me. I was ready to die for it.”

She reported her husband to the police station the next day, and her involvement in the EPRDF afforded her a seldom conferred protection in a country with a high prevalence of violence against women.

Her husband lost his scholarship to study, his job, and Kwat went ahead and finished a three-month training course.

She served in the EPRDF for over two decades; but her political participation, despite the sacrifices she had made to get there, left her disillusioned.

The numerous training sessions she participated in were rarely applied beyond the classrooms in which they were discussed. The time of EPRDF’s rule was marked by political and economic marginalization for Gambella, as well as a brutal crackdown on Anywaas in the region.

An Anywaa herself, Kwat later left the EPRDF and joined the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement, prior to its split, and lived in exile with other party members in Eritrea for a year.

Following Abiy’s ascension and reconciliatory efforts toward a number of exiled parties, she returned back home, along with other party members, in 2019.

The 42-year-old Kwat, who had run as a candidate for her region’s council, represents a minority of women in Gambella’s politics. Only 21 percent of women are in leadership positions across the region’s government according to a sample study conducted by the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth and UN Women in November 2020. In Somali and Afar regions this drops to 11 and seven percent, respectively.

“Women in our community are not educated,” said Kwat. “They don’t know their own rights, so they cannot fight for them.”

But education is an uphill battle for Ethiopia, where nearly half of all girls who start learning in grade one do not make it to grade five. From those that do, a further 75 percent drop out before high school graduation for varying reasons, including early marriage.

Historical and legal backdrops 

The National Policy on Ethiopian Women, crafted around the same time Kwat first forayed into politics, was significant for its timing. Drafted during the transitional government and prior to the country’s first federal constitution in 1995, it paved the way for women’s rights in the country.

Ethiopia was a signatory to the CEDAW before this policy was drafted, and since then has ratified and legislated multiple international treaties and national laws that protect women’s rights, most recently the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

But, not unlike the tenets of the multiple trainings that Kwat attended, the policy and ensuing legal instruments have remained on paper.

“Ethiopia has always had good policies,” said Sehin Teffera, founder of Setaweet, an organization and feminist network founded in 2014 working on gender equality in Ethiopia. “It is implementation that’s the problem. It requires a strong civil society organization culture, which we lack.”

Setaweet, like the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and the Network of Ethiopian Women Association, organizations working on advancing women’s rights in the country, has participated in writing shadow reports. These reports review the performance of the government in the execution of its international obligations, in particular its commitments to the CEDAW.

In its February 2019 report to the committee, Setaweet pointed out a number of failings, including the absence of specific laws on gender-based violence and lack of a nuanced understanding of women as political subjects in their own rights.

“This is common rhetoric we see especially in cases of gender-based violence,” said Sehin. “People present women as someone’s daughter or sister or wife to draw sympathy, when their humanity should be enough.”

Society will undoubtedly gain from the empowerment of women, but a narrative that places the inherent value and rights of women as secondary to men’s is inadequate. It is important to note that as women are primary caregivers in Ethiopian society, the pursuit of their political rights will receive a boost if men fulfill more duties at home.

Beyond the shadow reports that CSOs provide, however, there is not much that can be done in terms of ensuring the applicability of these treaties, as that would require proving that all local options are exhausted. The efforts to prove this are long, arduous, and mostly fall on CSOs, which have a history of being repressed.

In 2009, a law banned foreign CSOs from engaging in issues relating to human rights and women rights if, among others, they received more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad. The law was amended in 2019 to lift these restrictions but the ten-year ban now has CSOs playing catch-up.

Performative action

Part of the moves improving women’s political participation has been the appointment of formerly exiled leader of the Unity and Democracy for Justice Party, Birtukan Mideksa, as head of the reformed National Election Board of Ethiopia, another first for an Ethiopian woman.

The new electoral law merged into one three statutes that previously governed election procedures, registration processes for political parties, and party rules. Though it was intended to strengthen the independence of the country’s electoral board, political parties raised concerns and demanded the cancellation of 13 provisions when the draft was tabled for consultations.

Among these provisions were also those geared toward achieving a better gender balance in political party membership, election candidature, and even those engaged in the electoral process like poll workers.

“Many suggestions made regarding gender balancing were thwarted at the drafting stages due to the resistance of political parties,” said Getachew Assefa, associate professor at the School of Law at Addis Abeba University. “The threshold requirement was seen as unrealistic and impractical.”

Despite this, the new law empowers the election board to oversee political parties’ effort in ensuring women’s participation. A departure from the previous laws is that it provides incentives to parties who include women as members, leaders, and candidates, explained Getachew.

One particularly thorny provision in the draft stipulated that a female candidate would be declared a winner if her votes were tied with a male candidate—affirmative action that was intended to motivate the political participation of women. The bill, however, was seen as unconstitutional, as a 50 percent +1 vote for a candidate is needed to win, and it was later excluded.

But proponents of women’s rights believe that the constitution entitles women to affirmative measures, and that it should be reflected in all sectors, including politics.

The higher education law has a provision that sets different admissions standards as a special support to women. Similarly, the labor law entitles women to affirmative action in recruitment and promotion, as well as in education and training opportunities.

But as there is no national policy on affirmative action for women; the constitutional guidance has yet to be applied uniformly.

Women as bait

There are many countries with a compulsory quota for women’s participation, including Uganda and Rwanda. But despite lacking a legal basis in Ethiopia, political parties touted self-imposed gender quotas for their members and leadership teams during the recent election season, its enactment wholly dependent on how far the parties themselves are willing to go.

On 7 May, 2021, in the midst of the campaigning period for the elections, the roads leading to Gabon Street in Addis Abeba, one of the busiest streets in the capital, were closed off. A Prosperity Party advocate, a man, was yelling into a megaphone surrounded by dozens of Ethiopian women. His message was simple, “a vote for Prosperity is a vote for women.”

Prosperity achieved an impressive gender parity in the election, with 43 percent of all its candidates women, the highest among all political parties.

But this may be due to reasons other than a genuine interest in the party by the women participants. Opposition parties claim that this is due to the continued blurring of the ruling party and the state.

One common leverage for manipulation is the Productive Safety Net Program. First initiated in 2005 to support the chronically food insecure, it is a bait that was used to draw in women, according to interviews with some opposition parties, like the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (known as Ezema).

Starting with $450 million in initial funding and implemented in 11 cities in the country in its most recently implemented version, what makes this program susceptible to manipulation is the way beneficiaries are selected. Decisions are made at kebele levels and are not well targeted due to a lack of detailed information, which leads to reliance on subjective assessments by officials.

Women Prosperity Party supporters at a campaign rally in Addis Abeba; 13 June 2021; Addis Ababa Prosperity Party’s women’s league.

The latest installment of the program was greenlighted in May 2020 with the World Bank giving most of the $738 million funding to provide support to more than half a million people. Some political opponents allege the program was used by the incumbent to manipulate women voters, and say that fits into a broader pattern

“The government needs to stop using women as an incentive only when the election seasons draw near,” Genet, a women’s representative for Ezema, told Ethiopia Insight.

But in a country where the gender gap grows even wider—Ethiopia dropped 15 ranks last year landing at 97 from a total of 156 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index—economic independence can be a convincing factor for women to join politics or to vote in a certain way.

During the Election Board’s preliminary registration of parties, when their number stood at 105, women made up less than one-fifth percent of founding members. While on the one hand there were hopes the current election would create a diverse multi-party system, this raised concerns that there would be a lower representation of women even if multiple parties were elected.

Indeed, compared to 29 percent in 2015, women candidates decreased to 21 percent in 2021, according to an election report by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. That was due to security concerns and lack of financial resources and traditional gender bias, they said. In total, 1,982 women were registered as candidates this year, comprising 16 percent of candidates for the federal parliament and 22 percent for the regional chambers.

The report noted that, “women candidates from opposition parties were more frequently the target of intimidation, threats, and campaign interference by security forces as well as members of the ruling party.”

Another recent assessment over the past year suggests that most women are recruited by political parties to fulfill quotas that they brandish as achievements rather than the women actively seeking political participation.

President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first female president of Ethiopia, at a polling station on election day; 21 June 2021; AFP.

Almaz Seboqa, a parliamentarian representing Goba Wereda in Oromia’s Bale Zone, ducked requests to join the EPRDF for years. “I once even said that a close family member of mine had fallen sick just so that I would be left alone,” she said. “Politics was not a good choice at the time.” This was in 1992, just after the EPRDF had assumed control, and she feared that such involvement would only bring problems.

A teacher for most of her career, the requests had come a year after her graduation from Robe College of Teacher’s Education when she was 20 years old. Instead, she chose to continue her career as a teacher and focus on raising her two children.

The deciding factor was her realization that she would be serving her community. In 2005, one year after her husband passed away unexpectedly, Almaz finally decided to join the party.

Since then, Almaz has juggled single motherhood, party politics, and pursuing her degree while working.

Her background in education ushered in her first role in leadership in her local education bureau to more posts including speaker of the council for her wereda’s council. After 10 years of political participation, she was selected as a candidate and won a seat in parliament in the 2015 general elections.

“I have been through a lot of challenges,” she said. “Believing in yourself and having confidence is not easy, but you understand that you can perform even better than most.”

Symbolic meanings

But women parliamentarians have yet to assume a role commensurate with their increased numbers. This can be attributed to a number of issues including allegiance to their parties, lack of experience, and having to act as primary domestic caretakers.

“There are times when we were confronted by other party members on why we raised our concerns,” said Almaz. “The questions were only to be presented in the way the men were interested in presenting them.”

Nearly seven decades have passed since Senedu Gebru made history as the first elected woman parliamentarian in Ethiopia. Between then and now, representation for women has grown rapidly. Many other firsts have been achieved by other females, including the first appointment to become President of the Federal Supreme Court.

But, the increasing numbers betray the lonely reality that Ethiopian women in politics still face. Navigating all male-spaces, where shared experiences are less, is a life skill they need to have in order to have their voices heard.

Meaza Ashenafi, first female President of the Federal Supreme Court.

The Joint Council of Political Parties was formed to facilitate the interaction between political parties. According to Rahel Baffe, its recently appointed secretary-general, part of the council’s tasks in this election season were to create a consensus among parties and offer political training for women members.

“We held discussions with veteran women politicians to come and participate to give talks on their experiences to the participants,” she said. But even here, there was no real commitment from parties.

This is a phenomenon that Rahel, as a long-time politician, has experienced firsthand. Since her initial involvement as one of the members of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, she has sat and spoken up in rooms where she has continued to be the only woman present.

“It was difficult at first to have no one with shared experiences,” she said. “But I got used to it.”

Now, nearly two decades later as head of the political parties council, which has more than 50 members, the situation is largely similar.

“In the rare instances where there is a women representative, it will be because someone else dropped out and the woman came to replace them.”

Modern gatekeepers

The same numbers that reflect superficial strides in the women’s political journey also show the federal and regional dichotomy. While the federal level cabinet, composed of 20 ministers, is closer to parity, this ratio is cut by half in regional cabinets. Zonal cabinets dip even lower, at 18 percent gender parity, according to a joint government and UN report.

Women’s participation at lower administrative tiers is again attributed to a patriarchal society as well as lower educational levels. However, this holds true even for women who have had an exceptional leg-up as members of the young, educated urban political elite in the capital.

An Ezema candidate representing the Addis Ketema Sub-city, Nardos Sileshi’s decade-long experience as a member and leader of the country’s Rotaract Club had equipped her with the tools necessary to find her way in politics.

Nardos did exceptionally well in her nine years there, going to serve as the country’s club secretary and then as president of the district Rotaract Club which incorporated Kenya, Eritrea, and South Sudan.

The 28-year-old worked on feeding students across schools in Addia Abeba with her local club before the city’s former mayor, Takele Uma, initiated it as part of the city’s biggest projects in 2020.

“I realized that most of the issues we were working on at the club could be solved at a political level, with policy changes,” she said, explaining her motivation to join the party.

Joining Ezema raised many eyebrows. Most of her friends were asking what there was to be gained from her political participation. Her family, though divided over the issue, did not intervene.

Ezema has achieved close to 30 percent membership of women, while six of its 19 leaders are women. It has over 2,000 candidates and competed at the national level; 180 of these are women.

Though Nardos’s candidacy for the party has been achieved in less than a year since joining, it was a hard-won battle. “I was younger than most and it was hard for them to believe that I was actually competing.”

Nardos spoke of times when the men expected her to make coffee during the meetings.

“I had to say, ‘I would be more beneficial to you involved in this meeting than making coffee for you’,” she said.I had the opportunity to lead the team and I used it to show my skills.”

The members voted, and, in the end, she earned the vote—Nardos became a candidate for the federal parliament.

A mother casting her vote on the outskirts of Addis Abeba, near Entoto; 21 June 2021; AP.

But even for her, coming from an educated and encouraging family, the message of equality has yet to hit home with many, as the past election season would show her.

During the campaign, her mother fell sick. And while working two jobs to sustain the family’s income and taking care of her mother, she also ended up also making the family meals.

“My father and brother are progressive, in that, yes, they do believe in equality and support me,” she said. “But the problem is they won’t step into the kitchen to make food for themselves, so that falls on me.”

But all her sacrifice would only lead to her being questioned on her qualities and her commitment upon her election as a candidate.

“I was treated like I didn’t deserve to be here,” she said. “The commitment necessary from political parties goes as far as expecting you to take leave without pay from your job. But I can’t afford to take a leave from my job.”

Financial support from political parties and the financial strength of these institutions is critical for women if they are to get closer to the starting line before the race starts.

Women like Nardos have faced historical burdens and are expected to outdo themselves to be given a chance.

This holds true across the board, for women members of political parties as well as for those in government. While this is yet to be fully utilized as a rallying point for women in Ethiopia’s politics, it is a lived experience for all.

“The women go home and take care of their families, while the men are free to Google and learn more,” said Meskerem, head of PP women’s league. “This is why we see a big gap in the political capacity of women in the country.”

Ethiopian intersection

Recently the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) embarked on the first election monitoring endowed with a gender lens known as Violence Against Women in Elections (VAW-E).

Co-founded by the current and first women President of the Federal Supreme Court, Meaza Ashenafi, EWLA has been targeted in the past for its work on the behalf of women, and even had its operations suspended for criticism of the government on women’s rights issues.

Its latest project, VAW-E, monitored acts intended to influence women’s political activities, such as running for office, working at polls, or even voting. It includes the women that are groped and harassed in lines waiting to vote—physical and sexual violence—and the psychological and economic ones as well. It means viewing the entire laws and policies from the perspective of women’s rights.

“We have been monitoring elections in the past through reviewing…fairness, for instance,” EWLA head Lensa said. “But we have never focused on gender and the experiences of women.”

The slander, intimidation and verbal harassment that often accompany women candidates as they are out campaigning fall under the less visible but most pervasive type of psychological violence against women during elections, while economic violence is using baits like the Productive Safety Net Programs to gain their vote.

In its preliminary report, the organization reported that threatening or intimidating women was the most widespread violation reported by its 350 observers during the pre-election period, with 41 cases.

Women lined up to cast their vote at a polling station in Addis Abeba; 21 June 2021; AFP.

“People think this gender lens is nonsense,” said Lensa. “They don’t think women are impacted as much because they are not imprisoned like men. But we are uncovering only a piece of a much larger issue.”

First time voter 26-year old Sara Tesfaye came back without casting her vote for this very reason. The Election Board, following in some cases late starts at polling stations and in part to accommodate the long queues of voters, had extended its services to late hours.

“I was standing in line until 11pm,” said Sara. “I had some neighborhood friends walk me home safely, but I couldn’t stay longer than that.”

The recommendations from EWLA’s report are eerily similar to a previous study conducted by the association in the early 2000s.

“The numbers have changed but the issues have largely remained the same,” said Lensa. “This research is intended to provide baseline data towards having a clear sexual harassment law.”

According to EWLA, anything that contravenes women’s political rights—a polling station in the middle of the bush, a carelessly timed meeting incognizant of women’s domestic burden, or lack of mandatory provisions compelling political parties to take women’s issues seriously—is violence.

“We are not asking for any favors,” said Lensa. “This is our right—it is written plain and clear.”

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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.

Main photo: Women government officials with President Sahle-Work Zewde, congratulating her on the recognition given to her by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in 2020; Meaza Ashenafi’s twitter account.

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About the author

Maya Misikir

Maya is a freelance journalist based in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. While writing is her chosen way of self-expression, playing rugby comes as a close second.

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