Ethiopian Women; Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone, Claim Your Rights Fully!

Meaza Ashenafi, 50, has become a face of the Ethiopian Women’s struggle for equality. A lawyer by training, she accomplished tangible results for the cause of women. In 1995 she founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyer’s Association and led it to magnificence during her eight years of dedicated service. In addition to her accomplishment, for which she was awarded the 2003 Africa Leadership Prize, she mobilized 12 professional and business women in 2008 to establish Ethiopia’s first bank dedicated to financing enterprises initiated or led by women. EBR’s Amanyehun R. Sisay, talked with Meaza about the state of women’s rights in Ethiopia, and her innovative bank.

EBR: You’re well known for promoting women’s rights. Tell us about how became inspired to work in that area.

Meaza: I’m sensitive and concerned about people who don’t have a voice.Since I was young I hated discrimination and later on I did my graduation thesis on the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) was inspired by experience at the Ethiopian Constitution Commission. I was a researcher there when the current constitution was being drafted. At that time I worked with a great man, the late Kifle Wodajo, who was my mentor on human rights. When I was at the Commission, I had the opportunity to go to Holland for training and we met women lawyers from Uganda and Kenya who told me about their lawyers associations.

When was that?

That was in 1992. After we came back we started to talk about the idea with our colleagues and we established EWLA and I became the first director of the Association and ran it for eight years.

What were the most important achievements of EWLA during those years?

EWLA catalyzed the change of at least 4 laws, including the Ethiopian Family Law, the Criminal Law, Pension Law and Citizenship law. EWLA played a key role in identifying the gaps and persuading the government to take action. Lucky enough, the government responded and very progressive laws were enacted between 2000 and 2005.

EWLA placed women’s rights on the public agenda. During those days, there were no words or concepts to describe issues such as violence against women in Amharic. It was EWLA which crafted the term ‘Tiqat.’ At the time, there was no word in Amharic to describe sexual harassment also. So we came up with the Amharic, ‘Wesibawi Tinkosa.’

We helped establish free legal aid centers in Addis Ababa and regional towns. Thousands of women benefited. Some cases set precedence. And a few made global headlines, such as in the Washington Post. Interestingly, one of the cases led to a recent movie called “Difret” which has received awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals this year.

You were in Europe regarding that film right? tell me about it.

The film is Entitled “Difiret”. The idea was initiated by a young man, Zeresenai Mehari. He was interested in a particular case that we represented eight years ago at EWLA about a girl who killed her abductor. After 8 years he managed to produce this fantastic film. At his invitation I went to watch it at the Berlin Film Festival. Its expected Ethiopian premiere is this May.

Your work at EWLA has brought international recognition too.

In 2003, I got the Hunger Project Leadership Award. Five years later, I received the International Woman of Courage Award from the United States Government. For me, however, the most important recognition and encouragement comes from the public. I also know that the change came through a team effort.

You also received USD50,000 from the Hunger Project, what happened with that?

The recognition from the foundation is what matters but the money helped me to build a house since my work for EWLA was primarily voluntary.

Why did you leave EWLA?

I worked day and night for eight years at EWLA and contributed what I could. I wanted to create opportunities for other people to take up the struggle.

But EWLA seems to have been on the decline since you left.

I tend to concur with you and that saddens me. I feel sorry when I think about that because I was there to see what EWLA has done and know the potential of the Association. It was and still is a strong brand when it comes to promotion and protection of women’s rights. But I don’t know the reason for its decline. Unfortunately, when the founders are not there, often the commitment level decreases and after the 2008 Charities and Civil Society Act things slowed down.

EWLA is still there and young lawyers should pick it up and run with it. It is the issue of leadership, not finance. I run into a lot of people who say “we would like to support EWLA; we would like to revive it; and how can we support EWLA?” So, I think it is the issue of leadership; I challenge young lawyers to get involved.

So do you have plans to revive it?

EWLA is still there. It is still running at least the legal aid program. There is also a lot of public support for EWLA. So it is about reconstituting it; it’s about getting involved in new and dynamic platforms; it’s about leadership.

Although EWLA and other associations have been educating the public to stop abusing women it has not declined. Sometimes it seems like things are even getting worse, stories unheard of before are popping up.

Exactly! Talking about unheard of stories, I read about the young lady, Aberash Hailat, whose eyes were pulled out by her ex husband on a Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago. I was on the phone calling everybody I know. My husband even told me to go back to EWLA. After that, with the help of NEWA (Network of Ethiopian Women’s Associations), and other similar organizations we organized a big event. Then we came up with about 10 recommendations that were sent to the Prime Minister’s Office. The specific recommendations related to victims of violence against women are yet to be implemented.

Why is that?

There were two parallel activities at the time. One was advocacy and the other was the court case. In terms of the court case, the Federal High Court sent the offender to jail for 9 years but the Supreme Court, extended the imprisonment period to 20 years. 

In some countries when something like this happens, they will enact a law against violence under the name of the particular victim or they establish a fund for the protection of women’s rights and these were included in the recommendations sent to the government at that time.

In most discussions on women’s rights the victims are not represented. How can we get people involved at the grassroots level?

I think we need discussions at every level. We need to give credit to our government. It has done a lot. But unfortunately, social movements need to be catalyzed by the people as well. The role of civil society is very important. On the other hand, I don’t believe in the privatization of stakeholders.

Could you elaborate more on that, I mean about the privatization of stakeholders?

It’s not enough if certain people or certain groups take the mandate to speak on behalf of the general population. We have to mobilize the entire population at different levels and we have to provide space according to their needs to realize freedom of association and freedom of expression. We also need to support initiatives that link the top leadership with the information coming from the downstream.

Since the Civil Society Proclamation was enacted in Ethiopia, EWLA’s activity has been very much challenged. Its executive director Mahder Paulos has fled the country.

I don’t know why Mahder left Ethiopia. This legislation of course was a challenge not only for EWLA but for other organizations as well. So, I don’t think leaving the country is a solution when there is challenge. We have to stay and continue to fight. We also have to look for alternative ways of pursuing our goals, objectives and visions. For example, in 2001 EWLAwas suspended. It was a challenging time for us, but we fought for it and the association survived.

You were at EWLA at that time, right?

Exactly, I was at EWLA in 2001. We didn’t close the door and run away. We faced the challenge. We took the Ministry of Justice, which suspended EWLA, to court because we believed that we could use the law to protect our right to association, and we succeeded. I don’t think we have to stop our struggle because of challenges. But, to be honest with you, I don’t have the details on how and why Mahder left the country.

In 2004, you joined the Inter Africa Group (IGA) as its executive director. Tell us what achievements you had at that organization?

It was just after I finished my work at EWLA in 2004, and at the juncture, Ato Kifle Wodajo, the Executive Director of IAG passed away. At the time the organization had a big plan to organize public, policy and political debates in preparation for the 2005 election. So, I landed on that project. It was fascinating; it was sensitive and it was very productive for all involved. I hope there would be someone who will document and write a book about the experience at that time.

But after the election, the IAG was not active; even in the immediate aftermath of the election, it was the European Union and other embassies that were more active mediating the ruling and opposition parties to solve the political deadlock.

I wouldn’t say the European Union and embassies were more active. Yes, they were involved but there were also Ethiopian initiatives. I know that there was a committee of prominent Ethiopians who were involved in the mediation. On the part of the IAG, people like Abdul Mohammed, chairman of the Inter Africa Group, were involved in the mediation process, to bring together political parties with different views. But they were working more from the background. I was not personally involved in the mediation because during that summer, I left to the United States for my graduate studies.

Can you tell me about that?

I was offered a scholarship from the UNESCO chair for Human Rights. I was there for a year and did my graduate studies in International Relations and Gender Studies at the University of Connecticut.

You were working at EWLA and now you are working at the international level with the UNECA. How do you compare the two?

My work at the EWLA was more action oriented, but it had some component of research. But my work at the UN level involves more research, facilitating discussion and reflection. I believe direct action work is good but reflection, discussion, research, and thinking to assist informed decision making is also absolutely vital.

You worked for nearly 20 years locally and internationally for women’s rights. Do you think that the Ethiopian government has done enough to put the policy and legal framework in place for the rights and protection of women?

Enough is always a very tricky word. The government has included the issue of women’s rights in the constitution which is very important. Ethiopia has ratified almost all the most important conventions in relation to women’s rights. Most important laws and policies are in place. We have a government structure committed to women. Of course the structure that we have now is not only mandated with women’s issues alone, it has other mandates such as youth and children. I have my own views on that one but at least we have the structure and we have women’s organizations at different levels. How dynamic they are is still up to discussion. But there are still some policy gaps to be addressed.

What would you say those gaps are?

When it comes to violence against women, we don’t have a comprehensive legislation. We have the criminal code which has provisions on violence against women, but in order to implement and enforce those provisions, we need a comprehensive law on violence against women. We need protection orders and laws that give civil remedies to abused women.  

In terms of women’s economic empowerment, there are initiatives. Women are organized at the grass roots level and they are engaged in micro and small enterprises. That is good but we need to think big and bold. Ethiopia is making progress and we are very proud as citizens. We have big government projects and our economy is growing. But we also need to sit down to evaluate and track if women are fully participating and benefiting from this development.

Following EWLA’s advocacy, you told me previously that some policies were revised; how have they improved the lives of Ethiopian women?

They have definitely helped. The husband is no more ‘the head of the Family’. Couples who cohabit for more than three years are considered married, women that have a family problem now don’t need to wait for 10 to 12 years to settles issues related to divorce. They are not expected to submit their cases to the family arbitration and spend years dealing with family arbitration. They can go to court and settle divorce and related issues within a limited period of time. In terms of management of common property, the law is there and women can use it to empower themselves and claim their rights. Today, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is illegal. We have a provision that criminalizes violence against woman even in a domestic setting it is illegal. The list can go on. Are women empowered enough to claim their rights? That’s a different question.

Recently I was at a Vital Statistics Registration in one of the Sub cities in Addis Ababa. And I was caught by surprise to notice that divorce certificates issued by the Office were 97Pct higher than expected. Can we attribute this to the ease of undertaking divorce proceedings at court? And do you think this is okay?

Divorce is not good by any standard. Divorce is not good for family, children or for the society. On the other hand, to stay married with someoneagainst their will is counterproductive. It is not good for the couple or for the children. But we need to assume that these are adults involved in a marriage and they will not simply decide to get a divorce just because the law makes it easier. Research shows that in countries where women are better off in terms of income divorce rates increase. So it is difficult to conclude.

Let’s talk about how you established Enat Bank.

We came up with the idea of establishing a women’s bank through a casual conversation with Sara Abera, a friend of mine who runs Muya Ethiopia, centre producing high-quality craft and soft furnishing for the high-end export market. She told me how challenging it was for women to access finance and, over several months of conversations, we came up with the idea of starting a women’s bank.  

Then, I realized we needed 75 million Birr to establish a bank. This was a big challenge.

We loved the idea but we were not sure on how we were going to raise the money. Then we invited 12 prominent business and professional women.

After the meeting, it took almost four months to officially launch the idea. But after a year and half of promotional work, we were not able to raise enough funds. We raised only about 10 million Birr. Then the team started to get discouraged. Elsabeth Getachew, Vice President at Ethiopian Airlines, advised me to talk to Yosuf Raja, a fantastic promoter and marketer. He understood the potential and became project coordinator. He helped us fundraise and the bank was launched in March 2013.

Tell us about the main objective of the Bank.

The objective of the Bank is to contribute to the economic empowerment of women. Close to 64Pct of the equity of this bank is owned by women, which is encouraging when compared with the experiences’ of other banks in our country or even banks in other countries. There is a women’s bank in Tanzania but 97Pct of the investment is injected by the government. Last year, India also started a women’s bank but with government financing.

We want women entrepreneurs to think big. If you take China, they have a number of women billionaires, who had their names listed in Forbes magazine. So, the sky is the limit. Banks are not only for the rich men. They are also for women and we want to send this message. We also want more women to lead and work in the banking industry. We want to inspire others. We want to be trend setters.

Enat Bank was established when the environment for private banks started to worsen.

If you talk to the bankers here, they will tell you the 27Pct investment bond purchase is a challenge and competition is stiff. But challenges always help us to thrive. It keeps us on our toes. It inspires us to work harder and cooperate with others. Enat Bank is only a year old and we are doing fantastic. It has already passed the breakeven point over the last several months. And we are registering profit. Amazingly, we have attracted more deposits than we expected. So, I would say yes, there are challenges. But we will thrive [over those] challenges.

Can we say you realized lately empowering women economically is more important than raising awareness about their rights?

I don’t know why you say lately because I am still young [loud laugh]. But it is not a matter of realizing that women’s economic empowerment is more important. I always knew that. For your information, there are women who are very well off financially [but] who are not in a position to assert their rights. And you will be surprised how many women globally as well as in our cities are voiceless in spite of their financial well-being. So, for me economic rights, social rights, political rights and civil rights enforce one another, they are indivisible.

How much have you been affected by the requirement of the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE), which forces private banks to surrender 27Pct of their loan disbursement for the purchase of NBE Bills?

I know that it will affect the profitability of the bank. Ideally, this is for public investment and the investment is done for collective good. Ethiopia is becoming an example of public investment. We are all proud about that. On the other hand the impact on private banks has been reported. It affects banks’ capacity to advance loans. As you know survival and growth of banks is largely dependent on advancing loans.

How much birr is tied up from your bank?

Management tells me that we have already contributed about 70 million birr.

Most private banks focus on cities instead of extending their branches in the rural areas where there is a large unbanked society. Will Enat Bank do that?

Our bank pays more attention to women, especially entrepreneurs. But we also serve other sectors and we want to expand into rural areas, there is enormous potential.

How did you finally come to appoint a male President, Wondwossen Teshome, to run the Bank?

One of the challenges we faced from the beginning was setting up a good management team and appointing the president. We nominated two women initially, Birtukan Gebregzi and Birutawit Dawit Abdi. Both of them were rejected by NBE. Then we nominated Fasika Kebede who was Vice President of Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and then CEO of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. Fasika was also involved when the Bank was being promoted. After the NBE accepted Fasika’s nomination she became the founding president. 

Shortly after the Bank opened, however, we had some concerns in terms of management harmony and team building. The Board always believe in shared vision, teambuilding and leadership; we cannot compromise on this. The Bank’s fate relies on its leadership, some senior managers started resigning, and it became unhealthy work environment, we tried to support the management but it didn’t work out.

Did you try to replace Fasika with another woman?

Yes, we established a recruitment committee to bring a woman on board. We wanted someone with a track record. But we were not able to find a woman who would meet the requirement set by the NBE. So we appointed Wondwoson. He is highly recommended both for his technical and leadership skills. So if we have a man in leadership who has clear picture of the bank’s vision, it is fine. Not having a woman at the helm of the Bank’s leadership will not compromise the vision of the Bank at all.

Do you have message for the business community?

My message is for the general community, not just for the business community.

People should understand the values women can bring whether in business or in politics. Women can contribute in unexpected ways if they are given the opportunity. I want everybody to understand that if we don’t educate and empower women our development and aspiration to come out of poverty will not be sustainable. So my message is let us include women in whatever we do. Especially young women, I want them to be motivated and inspired. I know there are lots of challenges and obstacles but Ethiopian women are hard working. Still, I want them to push themselves . Go beyond your comfort zone and fully claim your rights.

Amanyehun R. Sisay

EBR Staff Writter

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