50 Million Strong, Yet Invisible?

This post wasn’t supposed to be what it is now. I was meaning to write something like Reflections at 40 or something to that effect. Since I will be turning 40 this week. I know! Quite a milestone.

I was thinking of writing about how I feel as an Ethiopian woman, what I have realized, what I have been through, what I come to conclude based on what I have experienced so far.

I changed my mind and going to write about the experience Ethiopian woman can relate to or that I thought so. It is a feeling that I had for long, the feeling of being dismissed, ignored and Invisible as a woman.

From the random man who chose to ignore you and talk to you, to the respected official who refuses to look at you but looks at your male colleague when addressing your concerns, people ignore or refuse to acknowledge your presence just because you happen to be a woman. I have had lots of such encounters and I noticed.

Thus, I was tired of being invisible; of trying hard to assert my presence elsewhere. Not even in that ” elite-y”, ” privileged” high status way I, together with educated activists, have been accused of. It is in a basic common sense way – considering half of the population in formulating laws/policies that affects the lives of millions of women.

I happened to be at a workshop couple of weeks ago. It was on rural land rights in general and women’s land rights/ rural land administration system from gender perspective, to be exact. A presenter, who shared her presentation with me knowing I am going use it here, was discussing how the legal provisions of Ethiopia failed to consider the rights of women in the context of protecting their rights when it comes to land ownership and use.

This affects millions of Ethiopian women. Currently, the population of Ethiopia is estimated to be 102 million. Women constituting 49% roughly 50 Million of us. Ethiopia is one of the least urbanized countries of the world where only 16% of the population lives in urban areas. The rest living in rural areas, farming is the main source of income for the rural population (CSA, DHS 2010).

Before going to specifics and examples, I would like to acknowledge that the Ethiopian government, together with rights groups and civil society organizations, has come a long way to ensure that women’s statutory rights and protected and well recognized. As a person who works with one of the pioneers, Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA), realizes that EWLA and others have succeeded in working with government to scrap many of laws that discriminate against women by omission or in line with the patriarchal system that was in place for centuries.

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Back to the issue, Women’s Land Rights.

The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in its Article 35(7) has stated ” women have the right to acquire, administer, control, use and transfer property. They have equal rights with men with respect to use, transfer, administration and control of land. They Shall also enjoy equal treatment in the inheritance of property”

Apart from this, the rural land law also recognizes women’s rights. There are positive practices in this regard like for married women to be included in title deeds, consulted (mandatory) during rent/transfer of land to another body (Proclamation Number 456/2005 – Art 6 (4)).

But, according to projects working on the area, there are practices and provisions that affect the above-mentioned land rights of women. One important provision is the inheritance article in the Civil Code of the country which states: that a widow doesn’t have the right to inherit land of her deceased husband through intestate succession because property passes to blood relatives. The Civil Code Art. 842-845: wives receive no portion of their husband’s property if he dies without a will.

Another provision related to inheritance, the Federal land law states family members   can inherit. Family member being defined as permanent residents of the house hold   that are dependent on income from the land, excluding blood relatives residing outside the household. Thus, most married women and daughters cannot inherit land from their husbands under the Civil Code (not a blood relative) nor from their fathers (if not living in his home).

Another article of the family law stipulates that property inherited by a spouse or acquired prior to marriage is his/her Personal Property (PP) unless a marriage contract states otherwise (RFC Art. 57). This excludes a woman from co-owning land with her husband, who in all likelihood inherited   land from his parents.

This is just an example, not exhaustive in listing the gaps in the laws that don’t fit into the situation on the ground. After listening to the presentation mentioned above, I and other participants, were asking how the law fail to recognize these practices and gaps in the first place? And isn’t there any person (including the 38% women parliamentarians there) to point this out or to make sure that women’s voices, and stakes are being protected?

The answer would not be that easy to come up with and there might be multiple factors and solutions involved. But for now I feel like we, the 50 million women of Ethiopia, are voiceless, unrepresented and invisible in many fronts .

We need women

Bethlehem N. Woldeyohannes

Bethlehem N. Woldeyohannes is a Feminist Writer, a Newspaper Columnist and Media and Communications Consultant based in Addis Ababa.

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