The women smashing Ethiopia’s glass ceiling

Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi's work as a lawyer led to a Hollywood film

Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi’s work as a lawyer led to a Hollywood film

Ethiopia is changing rapidly under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with women now wielding enormous power in a country where they have mostly been confined to traditional roles, writes BBC Tigrinya’s Hana Zeratsyon.

Ethiopians like to say they were ruled by Queen Sheba in biblical times – something they take great pride in, yet the reality is that the Horn of Africa state is a deeply male-dominated society.

As gender and law consultant Hilina Birhanu puts it: “Patriarchy is our society’s mother tongue. We learn from early to look down on women.”

This is borne out by some of the often-heard proverbs in languages spoken by Ethiopians, including “a house built by a woman does not have a base”, “a woman’s country is her husband and her livelihood is her character” and “as a soul is in its creator, a woman is in her master”.

 

Women, who make up about half the population of 102.5 million, are largely confined to traditional roles, especially in rural areas where they spend much of their time at home, looking after their children, fetching wood and water from rivers, and weeding and transporting cereals.

Statistics compiled by the Ethiopian government and other bodies show that: Nearly 25 per cent of women leave most decisions to their husbands, almost 50 per cent have experienced violence from a partner, less than 20 per cent of girls enroll for secondary education and more than 40 per cent are married before they turn18.

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to promote women to powerful posts has been widely welcomed, with rights groups hoping that the new government will follow it up by unveiling major initiatives in the coming months to improve the lives of ordinary women.

Mr Abiy, 42, has given half of the government’s 20 ministerial posts to women. This is in contrast to the four posts women held in the much larger cabinet of his predecessor, Hailemariam Dessalegn.

Ethiopia and Rwanda are now the only African states to have equal gender representation in the cabinet.

Mr Abiy has also appointed renowned human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi – whose efforts to tackle the underage marriage of girls formed the basis of an Angelina Jolie-produced Hollywood film in 2014 – as the country’s most senior judge. -BBC

 

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