Ethiopia's New Prominent Female Political Leaders Could Signal Shift

There have been several firsts for women recently in the country's political scene. Here's what gender equality is like in the country.
Posted at 6:46 PM, Nov 02, 2018

The past two weeks in Ethiopia have been a whirlwind of women rising into political power — and a lot of firsts. 

Those include the country's first woman president, first woman supreme court president. Women will also head up the country's defense, trade and revenue ministries. Those minister heads are among a reformed cabinet which is now half women. 

This shift in the political scene signals a larger push for gender equality in Ethiopia. But there is still more work to be done. 

The World Economic Forum's annual global gender gap ranking put Ethiopia 115 out of 144 countries. That ranking looks at several measures: economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment. 

Because that annual report was released last year, it doesn't take into consideration the most recent political achievements by women in the country. But it does give us some clues on some of the other women's and girls issues persistent in Ethiopia, like education.  

The report notes that compared to previous years, there is a narrowing gender gap for secondary education. Yet the basic literacy and primary school gender gap has actually increased. 

As USAID notes, however, this gap could be narrowed by letting women make financial decisions — "when women have access to their own income, they are more likely than men to spend it on the betterment of their families and successfully participate in village savings or pay school fees for their children."

Other persistent gender-based violence issues in the country — like female-genital mutilation, domestic violence and child marriage — can cause cycles of poverty and keep women from achieving. 

The newly appointed president Sahle-Work Zewde said, "If the reforms we have started are led in equal measure by both men and women, the country will soon forget poverty and backwardness and move toward prosperity."

The presidential appointment of Sahle-Work is symbolic in a lot of ways. For one, the president in the country is a figure head, rather than carrying political weight. Yet she's currently the only woman head of state on the African continent and also already been upfront that she doesn't plan on shutting up about gender equality issues.

As the Prime Minister's chief of staff noted, "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."