For Ethiopian Women’s Rights Activists; It finally is our time!

Ethiopia’s women ministers at a recent peace conference in Adis Ababa.

We accept it because we have seen the vision. We know that we cannot reap the harvest, but we hope that we may so well prepare the land and so diligently sow the seed that our successors may gather the ripened grain.  Liberty Hyde Bailey

That was what pioneer Ethiopian feminists and those who fought for gender equality might have said while going on with their daily business in the struggle for equal rights. That was what most of us doing women’s equal rights activism in Ethiopia had thought until a couple of months ago when all changed for better in terms of equal representation.
When the current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power In April this year, we hoped that things would change for the good for Ethiopian women probably after we listened to him speak for the first time to a nation in distress.
His televised inaugural speech before the parliament and the public at large, was none like the speeches Ethiopians were accustomed to. He mentioned how women of the country were left out of important decisions, treated as an afterthought despite their contributions and sacrifice they made for the country. He said that should be no more. His speech was full of hope and especially a shift from what the ruling party, EPRDF thinks when it comes to gender equality in Ethiopia. Its leaders have always spoken about how the women’s question was answered by the party, how everything was favourable for women.
That was a rationale for silencing the civil society organizations from working on women’s rights and advocating for gender equality.  But violence against women was on the rise. Women were discriminated against at workplaces and elsewhere, despite favourable laws and the constitution that guarantees equal rights for women in every aspect.  So women’s rights activists and feminist organizations always pressed for women’s rights to be respected. Equal participation is politics to be more practiced in a meaningful way.
The PM’s words were received with both excitment and hope when he said

” Our national identity is meaningless without the participation of Ethiopian women. By denying due recognition to women who built our country, served our country, and helped it to stand on its feet, it is impossible to establish national renaissance. Our government’s stand on the rights of women and their equality is not out of favor to them but rather for our common good. The government duly realizes that a nation that neglects and marginalizes half of its population absolutely cannot have a full and complete body and cannot move forward.”

So in September, when the Ethiopian New Year begins, The Yellow Movement and Setaweet (both feminist organizations) together with women right activists in Ethiopia decided they had to follow up on the PM’s words to hold him to it. They conducted an online campaign calling on government and the society to address issues affecting women and girls. Among the issues was a call for the PM to bring more women into leadership and increase political participation of women.
AF bloggers, Billene Seyoum and Sewit Haileselassie also wrote a ‘ letter to the PM’ published on the website of Earuyan Solutions, custodian of the African feminism (AF) which was among others that were forwarded to the PM as sets of advice from civil society and activists. This is probably the most notable among the asks that specifically was from women working on gender equality. One of the recommendations put in the letter was a 50-50 cabinet and to put women into positions often considered a male domain such as trade and industry, defence etc.
Despite putting these asks forward and hoping for little push and increase in number from previous times ( 16% of ministerial positions – 4 ministers holding the usual soft core positions like Women and Children’s affairs, Culture and Tourism, Labor and Social affairs, civil service etc), I believe that all of us who were speaking up never really thought that we would get what we were pushing for in our time. We thought we laying the ground for the next generation.
Just a few months ago, we were facing tough times. We remembered well how notable women’s rights organizations like Ethiopian Women Lawyers ‘Association (EWLA) were shut down for demanding justice for women.
Then there came the news that put Ethiopia and its women rightly in positive light. On 16th October, PM Ahmed announced that 50% of his reassembled 20 member cabinet would be women. Unlike old times, vital portfolios were given to women, most notably the ministries of Peace, Defence, Trade and Industry, Revenue, Labour and Social Affairs, and the Planning and Development Commission. The Minister of Peace being the powerful among them having most important 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 under its wing.

PM Ahmed was now walking the talk. His words were no longer just on paper.  We had hardly finished celebrating the 50-50 cabinet, when Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed the country’s first female President, the week after. Despite her position as head of state being ceremonial, it was symbolic in a way that seeing more women in power would mean a lot for the aspiration of bringing gender equality.
For me, the epitome of the PM’s bold action in appointing women was proposing Meaza Ashenafi, a prominent women’s right activist who would become the first woman president of the Supreme Court. This appointment was beyond symbolic because just few years back, the organization she co-founded EWLA was among theose blacklisted by the government and crippled by the CSO law that made many rights organizations closed.
It was a moment of celebration for most of us because the appointments bring not only women but also feminists like Meaza and our own Billene Seyoum, the founder of this platform, into position. Billene is now the Press Secretary to the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister is not yet done with the mission to make gender parity and women in leadership the norm. The latest appointment of  Birtukan Mideksa, a key opposition figure and ex-judge to head Ethiopia’s electoral board shows consistency and the beginning of a journey to restore democracy by ensuring inclusion and women at the centre. The journey will be long but these appointments are step in the right direction and a starting point to create a more fairer society than we have seen before.

‘We have a female at the helm of Presidency. We have a female President of the Supreme Court – the apex of our judiciary. This particular reform is rooted in the belief that making space for more women leaders is not only a move for diversity but the right thing to do’- Ethiopia’s PM Ahmed.

Thus for those of us who dare to call ourselves feminists we own the label because as a fellow feminist puts it ‘we rest on the shoulders of giants’. To those of us who witnessed with despair when the women’s movement dwindled to a handful of stubborn women who would just not shut up about the latest gang-rape, the latest acid attack, for those of us who have seen civil society and individuals vilified for doing their work, for speaking up for those who cannot. To those of us who look forward and hope for better recognition and participation of women in rebuilding Ethiopia. We have earned this day. This finally is our time.
Bethlehem is a feminist writer, advocate and a member of the Ethiopian Media Women Association, which  strives to create gender-sensitive media and improve women’s access and participation in community media. She holds  a Masters    in Politics and the Mass Media from the University of Liverpool.

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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