Gender Equality in Ethiopia: Good Beginning, but Much Remains

By Staff Writer

Gender-Equality-EthiopiaDecember 3, 2018 ( – In Africa, gender equality has always been elusive. Women still play minor roles in all the major sectors of the economy and politics. However, it seems there is a new wave that is sweeping across Africa. A change is coming, and Ethiopia appears to be determined to be at the forefront of this transformation.

According to data from the United Nations, Ethiopia has always performed poorly when we look at its gender equality performance indicators. While there has been tremendous progress made in the Millennium development goals (MDGs), the country still lags behind in the scope of gender disparities.

Women and girls in Ethiopia are disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts in various areas like education, health, livelihoods, human rights, and leadership. Apart from their low status in the community, they lack social support networks in the country. Discrimination against women is acute and clearly manifested.

For instance, 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population resides in rural areas, where the economic activity is largely agricultural. Women and girls provide the much-needed labor in their rural communities, in addition to 100% of house chores and childbearing and nurturing. They work in farms and look after livestock, just like men. However, their efforts are unrecognized. Their husbands and fathers restrict their access to resources and community participation. It is worse to an extent that the USAID data indicate 1 in 3 women experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Furthermore, more than 65% of women have undergone female genital mutilation, half of the girls who enroll in primary school never make it past grade five, and only 35 percent of undergraduate university students are female and five percent of them drop out in the first year. The statistics can go on and on, showing the grim reality of gender inequality existing in Ethiopia, as elsewhere in much of Africa.

The situation is particularly depressing when one considers women’s potential and the critical role they can play in the overall governance and development of a country. As we elaborate later in this article, in general, women are less corrupt than men, and, in general, they are more responsible than men – especially in less developed countries such as Ethiopia. Losing this half of the population is indeed a great loss for any country.

African leaders are beginning to recognize this. There are encouraging signs that show progress being made in some pockets. The transformation is not only being witnessed in Ethiopia, but also the rest of the continent. Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in women politicians. They are becoming actively engaged in various leadership positions at the local level, the corporate sector and the executive.

Data from Democracy in Africa (DIA) indicates that African countries have one of the world’s highest representation of women in politics. Rwanda has the highest representation of women in parliament, with 64% of the country’s legislators being women. In South Africa, Seychelles and Senegal, more than 40% of the lawmakers are women. Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, and Angola have 35%. This is commendable bearing in mind a developed country like the U.S. has 20% representation in the House and 23% in the Senate.

Ethiopia is on the right track of achieving gender equality, even though the gap is still large in rural areas. The existing gap is treated as an outcome of patriarchy and poverty. This suggestion might be true, but it doesn’t account for the variations between countries.

The government of Ethiopia, under the leadership of the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, seems to be committed to achieving gender equality. It all started when he appointed women to key positions in the government. As reported here, the election of the first Ethiopian woman president has raised hopes for more gender equality in Ethiopia.

While the president’s position is ceremonial, the election of Sahle-Work Zwede into office is significant since it has weight and social influence. She was unanimously voted into office by the country’s parliament, which clearly sent a strong message it is time for women to participate in the development of the country by assuming highest political positions.

Prior to the elections, Abiy Ahmed had already made it clear that he was determined to achieve gender equality in the country by nominating a 50% female cabinet, which was subsequently approved by the parliament.

Historic win for Ethiopia’s women

“Our women ministers will disprove the old adage that women can’t lead,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reiterated. According to the prime minister, the decision was historic and the first of its kind in the country and in Africa.

The Global Citizen reports that “Appointing women to leadership positions is key to achieving gender equality. Historically, women have been underrepresented in positions of power in Ethiopia but that’s changing.”

Data from the BBC shows that, in Africa, Ethiopia is now the second country after Rwanda to have equal gender representation in the highest positions of government.

After taking the oath of office, Abiy’s cabinet comprised of 28 ministers, with four women. However, the cabinet was later trimmed to 20, and women were appointed to fill 10 slots in the new cabinet. “Women are less corrupt, have proved to restore peace and stability, and can help move the country forward,” said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and hence for his decision to give women a chance to participate in the country’s development.

The Washington Post reports that, previously, women in Ethiopia held cabinet positions, but they were appointed to head ‘soft’ ministries. In the current administration, they run key ministerial portfolios; including the ministries of trade, Industry, the ministry of peace and Defense. Later, he also appointed female heads of the Supreme Court and the National Election Commission.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed couldn’t be more right when he said women are less corrupt than men and they can safeguard peace and stability better than men. Whereas each sex has its own merits, a lot can be said about the qualities women can bring to the table for the well-being of our society.

Numerous studies have shown there is a direct link between gender equality and reduced corruption. For example, this study and this one. According to these studies, it has been observed that increased participation by women in public domain reduces corruption. And there is built-in biological reason for this outcome. Compared to men, women are more risk averse (less daring), more sensitive to social cues, less competitive, more altruistic and more inclined to cooperate. For instance, in general, men tend to accept more bribes than women; and the average bribe received by men tends to be greater than that received by women.

The Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh lent 97% of micro loans to women. The rational behind this was simple. He found that women use the money they borrow more responsibly than men - to buy more useful items for their family or their business. He also found that the loan repayment rate for women was much higher (97%) than that for men.

The implication of all of this is clear. There is a lot to be gained by having women participate in the governance and development of a country at par with their men counterparts. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to recognize that.

Positive move

Ethiopia’ appointment of the first-ever female president is not an isolated phenomenon. “If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination,” said Sahle-work Zwede.

Human rights groups in the country welcomed the appointment of a female president, but cautioned that much more needs to be done. Gender equality has a long way to go, despite the recent moves by the prime minister. The president has also been urged to open dialogue with groups that drive the gender equality debate.

According to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the promotion of women transforms countries. However, men must play a huge role in putting women in these positions. They must be at the forefront to ensure their countries achieve gender equality.

Rwanda is among the countries that rank high in gender equality, but according to statistics from the inter-parliamentary union, what is reported does not reflect the true situation in a country that has been under the leadership of President Kagame for 18 years.

“A higher number of women in decision-making roles have led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes…you [men] must play an important role in upholding the rights of women,” said President Paul Kagame.

Gender equality in Africa is a field of study that is fast evolving and has helped explain the increasing number of female leaders across the continent. According to research conducted by the World Bank ‘Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?’ Africa has enormous potential that is yet to be exploited. This hidden potential lies in its people, especially women. The study concludes that achieving gender equality is a potent force for accelerated economic progress in the continent.

Moving forward

For a long time, African countries lacked bold leaders like Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Paul Kagame, who see women beyond the scope of mothers and sisters, leaders who can inspire women to assume positions of power where they can inspire others and contribute to the development of their countries.

Ethiopia, a country with the second largest population in Africa, and one that 30 years ago was facing famine, is presently striving to lead the way in this area than many other countries on the continent.

The current regime is set to transform the country into a middle-income nation by 2025. Whether that goal is achieved or not, let’s hope women will play a significant role in this transformation.

Despite the progress made, one might argue the country is still an authoritarian state. That’s why Mr. Abiy Ahmed has managed to change the country’s fortunes easily.

And as summarized by The Independent, these types of radical overhauls of a gender-balanced government is only possible when it’s authoritarian. The trade-offs essential in a more dynamic political arena are part of the reason why western democracies are unable to achieve the kind of results witnessed in Ethiopia.

Will the move towards gender equality continue, not only at the top level, but also all the way down to local level? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the country – and for the sake of men themselves.



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