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What does Sahle-Work-Zewde's appointment as first female President mean for Ethiopia?

In Blog
On 25th October 2018, Sahle-Work-Zewde was elected Ethiopia's first female president. Her appointment came the week after the Prime Minister's appointment of 10 female ministers, making Ethiopia the 3rd country in Africa, after Rwanda and Seychelles, to achieve gender parity in its cabinet. 

Following the appointment, Prime Minister Abiy’s chief of staff, said on Twitter. “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.”

So just what does this appointment mean for Ethiopia as a country, and in particular for its female citizens? We asked Valerie Bowden, Founder of Dirkosh Crunch, what she thinks of the appointment. Valerie is an American woman, married to an Ethiopian and living in Ethiopia, running a business there that provides meaningful and supportive employment to vulnerable young women and single mothers. Here is what she had to say:

What has been the reaction amongst the Ethiopian population to the appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde?

Surprisingly there wasn’t as big as a reaction as I expected. My friends from the US and Europe actually expressed more excitement. Increasing females in office is a huge goal for most Americans right now. Whereas in Ethiopia that hasn’t been the primary objective.

Most Ethiopians weren’t excited because in their words, “It’s just ceremonial.” It’s a position that has low expectations. The president comes to ribbon cutting ceremonies. They’re the face of the government, but don’t hold much power. Much of the population didn’t even know the name of the previous president.

Regardless, my husband, Alula, remarked “It still feels nice having someone so modern working inside our government.”

What are your own feelings about her appointment? Do you think it was a good or bad appointment? And why?

I’m really excited! I feel like it’s another confirmation that the new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, is staying true to his word. He promised greater equality for women, and appointing Sahle-Work is a sign that he is taking his promise seriously.

I also think it’s a good appointment because she seems amazing. She doesn’t back down. She speaks strongly for women. I love it when she said, “If you thought I spoke a lot about women already, know that I am just getting started.”

The country needs someone who can rock the boat a little. Someone who can push the boundaries forward and openly articulate what needs to change-even if it’s culturally a bit sensitive.

Why do you think she was elected? i.e. what attributes does she have that led to her election?

She is highly educated and served in high level international positions before so I think she is well suited to be in a position of leadership.

Traditionally, it’s the Ethiopian president who helps welcome foreign dignitaries and because she has lived and worked outside Ethiopia I think she’ll do a great job at relating to our international guests.

What do the lawmakers who elected her hope she will achieve for the country?

Internally, she’ll be expected to promote peace and equality. Externally, her job will be to introduce Ethiopia to the world. She’ll work on promoting tourism and be our face to the global community.

Traditionally, Ethiopians have been quite separate from the world--partly because they were never colonized.  I think lawmakers hoped her international background would help her engage more in the world while retaining the proper pride and respect for the Ethiopian culture.

What do you hope she will achieve for the country?

I hope she engages deeper with world leaders. Ethiopia needs better partnerships and more business incentives in the global market. I hope she can promote what our country can offer, and get solid support in return.

I also hope she can be a voice for women and start addressing some of the disparities. The level of inequality women face here is outstanding. From the rural areas where child marriage and genital mutilation still occurs, to the heavy burden of household chores which leads to fistulas, to the dire circumstances some women face during labor, to job discrimination in the cities, etc. The list can go on. Even just walking down the street, most women are verbally sexually assaulted by catcalling several times of day.

If Ethiopia wants greater health, education, prosperity, and peace, we have to start treating and supporting our women.

What do you think her biggest challenges will be as president?

Ethiopia’s greatest strength is our strong culture. It’s also the biggest challenge.  People say they are in favor of greater rights for women, but even women undermine themselves when it really comes down to it.

We say we are in favor of women increasing their education and career. But when it starts to impact her role in the family, things falls apart. A woman is still expected to make all the food, do all the cleaning, and take care of the children. As she pursues her life outside the home, men need to step up more in the house which is uncomfortable for many of them.

Her greatest challenge will be finding a way to go past the words, past policy and creating a grassroots movement that truly eases the burden on women--especially in rural areas.

Will she face different challenges than a male president would face? If so, what?

She’ll have extra pressure because she is the first female. If we had a bad president in the past, people would say it was because he wasn’t a good person or the right candidate. It wasn’t because he was male. If she makes a mistake, some people might automatically assume it’s because she’s a woman.

At the same time, she has the extra responsibility of being an example. A male president might encourage women to speak up more. Yet, she will not only have to say that, she will have to live that. She’ll have to practically live the truth she is trying to proclaim.

In a country like Ethiopia that is widely considered to be patriarchal, what impact, if any do you think having a female president will have on the country as a whole?

There have been a few examples of women in these leadership roles. For example, Empress Taitu is highly revered. But most girls in the average home aren’t encouraged to strive big. They’re taught to want children and a big wedding-- and that’s all.

I think having a female president will normalize women in power and leadership, and hopefully give girls (and their parents) encouragement to follow big careers and dreams.

And what impact, if any, do you think her presidency might have on gender equality in Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian government has actually been very pro-women for a long time. There are a lot of rules that protect women (allowing women in common law marriages to claim the man’s money in case they break up, making child marriage illegal, etc). But it still hasn’t impacted women as much as it needs too-- especially in rural areas.

I recently heard of a study done in rural Ethiopia where men and women had to list the job duties by gender. Men only had three jobs. They had to farm, manage the money, and drink beer (yes that was actually one of them!). Women had eight jobs. It included everything from getting the water, taking care of the children, cooking, cleaning, helping the men farm, and making the beer.

So I hope her presidency can move past just policies (which are still quite important) and help ease the burden of women on a very practical level.

Anything else about her appointment that you think is interesting and worth mentioning?

While appointing her as president alone is great, I think the best part of it is that half the newly appointed leaders were women! Together they can create change at a macro level and scale the progress much quicker.

Only a couple months back, EthioTelecom which is the only tele-company in the country and government owned, appointed their first female CEO. Within a month, she significantly lowered the price of everything (calling, texting, and especially internet which was quite expensive before). This made a huge difference in people’s opinions about the company and about appointing women in high level positions in the business world.

I expect that with this new president and these other female leaders we’ll have greater change in Ethiopia than we’ve ever seen before.

Conclusion & Thanks

Thank you very much to Valerie Bowden from Dirkosh Crunch for sharing her views on this historic appointment. Along with Valerie, we hope the appointment of Sahle-Work-Zewde and the 10 female cabinet ministers is a massive step towards greater gender equality in Ethiopia. As Valerie says, this progress needs to take place not only at the policy level, but practically and culturally, so that real change is felt in the homes of women and girls across the country.    


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