Ethiopia’s Paradox

A Legacy of Powerful Queens and Modern-Era Barriers to Women in Politics

Ethiopia presents a fascinating paradox. Its history boasts a remarkable lineage of mighty queens, exemplified by the visionary leadership of Empress Taytu in securing victory at the battle of Adwa against Italian colonizers. The story of Queen of Sheba and Empress Zewditu further paints a positive history of women as leaders in Ethiopia. Yet, despite this legacy, deep-seated cultural norms and religious beliefs often confine women to domestic roles. This, compounded by the prevalent issue of gender-based violence, creates a formidable barrier to women’s entry and advancement in the political sphere.

While Ethiopia holds a commendable position globally for women’s parliamentary representation, exceeding 40%, a closer look reveals a concerning reality. These seats are primarily filled through quotas rather than a robust system fostering organic advancement based on merit and capability. This crucial distinction exposes a fundamental flaw—quotas, while well-intentioned, often serve as a band-aid solution, failing to address the root causes of women’s underrepresentation. This approach ultimately limits women’s ability to exert genuine influence on policy formulation and decision-making processes.

EBR’s Iliyas Kifle delves into how these entrenched hurdles can be overcome. He proposes initiatives that tackle the immediate symptoms and the underlying factors perpetuating the issue.

Ethiopian women are engaged in an ongoing struggle for political empowerment and face significant hurdles. While there have been notable advancements, such as the government’s appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet in 2019, women’s representation in critical political roles needs to improve. Astonishingly, out of the 63 registered political parties in the country, none have women as chairperson or party leader. This marginalization further silences women’s voices within executive committees. The experiences and insights of prominent Ethiopian women politicians—Desta Tilahun, Kheirya Ibrahim, and Kidest Girma—as they shed light on their challenges and passionately advocate for meaningful change give eye-opening perspectives on the matter.

The patriarchy in Ethiopian society perpetuates the exclusion of women from leadership positions. Deep-rooted gender biases are reflected in the treatment of women within households where tradition assigns leadership roles to men. This culture of male dominance extends to the political sphere, where women face discrimination, conspiracies, and instability that dissuade their participation.

Desta Tilahun, a secretary general and executive member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a political establishment that dates back to 1972, highlights the deep-rooted bias within Ethiopian society, where leadership roles are predominantly reserved for men. She emphasizes that the treatment of women in society reflects the dynamics within individual households, perpetuating a system that limits women’s opportunities. Desta believes that sustainable women’s empowerment can only be achieved through increased political participation and decision-making roles for women.

Kheirya Ibrahim, a women leadership and administration officer at the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), another long-established party in the early days of the 1970s, echoes Desta’s sentiments, emphasizing the conspiratorial nature of Ethiopian politics, which poses challenges for both men and women. Kheirya points out that the mistreatment and imprisonment of opposition politicians, particularly women, create an environment that discourages women from engaging in political decision-making roles. She calls for inclusivity and gender sensitivity within political institutions to address these issues effectively.

Kidest Girma, a member of the national executive committee of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party, a newly established party in 2019, sheds light on the broader societal and cultural challenges hindering women’s empowerment. Kidest, who is also the chairwoman of the Joint Council of Ethiopian Political Parties, Women’s Wing, highlights the traditional division of labour within Ethiopian families, where women are expected to handle household responsibilities and are often deprived of opportunities to engage in public roles and activities that generate income, as a significant factor. Kidest emphasizes the need for a shift in societal attitudes, increased awareness, and an enabling environment for women to take active roles in decision-making and leadership to improve their participation.

Indeed, the challenging political environment in Ethiopia poses significant obstacles to women’s political engagement. The mistreatment and imprisonment of opposition politicians, including threats to their livelihoods, deter individuals, particularly women, from entering politics, let alone assuming decision-making roles. The prevailing perception of politics as a male-dominated realm further exacerbates these barriers.

Ethiopian society must challenge and change negative perceptions about women’s capabilities to achieve meaningful progress. Creating awareness and promoting literacy are crucial steps towards transforming societal attitudes. Men’s involvement in supporting women’s empowerment is also essential. Gender-sensitive policies and regulations that align with women’s interests and suggestions should be implemented. Additionally, economic empowerment plays a vital role in bridging the gender gap, allowing women to generate income and mitigate financial challenges.

Cultural and religious misconceptions surrounding women’s abilities hinder their empowerment. Stereotypes and prejudices are deeply ingrained in society, starting from the family unit and perpetuated through educational, media and artistic works. The fear and reluctance of men to accept women in political positions further contribute to the marginalization of women politicians.

Political participation is a powerful tool for women to influence policies and decision-making processes. Women’s political representation should go beyond mere numerical appearances and focus on meaningful inclusion. Creating institutions that are gender-sensitive and supportive of women’s leadership is crucial. The National Election Board of Ethiopia’s initiative to reward political parties with more funds based on the number of women members and executives is commendable. Still, a legal framework mandating a minimum number of women in leadership positions must be included.

Indeed, while the story of improved political representation gained attention in the past six years, the country has also gone through multilayered political crises and conflicts that disproportionately impact women. The high risks of living through the agony of poverty, displacement, gang rapes and taking care of children and the elderly indeed pose a significant threat to their survival, let alone having meaningful political participation. Women bear the brunt of violence and sacrifice their lives during conflicts, only to be ignored in the subsequent peace processes. To ensure sustainable women’s empowerment, it is central to address and prevent violence, protecting the lives and rights of women in Ethiopia.

Meaningful women’s political participation, leadership, and decision-making are essential for sustainable gender equality in Ethiopia. Transforming societal attitudes and dispelling negative narratives surrounding women’s capabilities is vital and takes many years of concerted effort. Educating women, creating awareness at all levels, providing economic opportunities, and fostering a political environment that encourages, attracts and nurtures women’s leadership will pave the way for progress.

Achieving gender equality required several policy interventions. It is very important to adopt gender-sensitive policies and practices at the institutional level. Women should be represented in political roles based on merit and their contributions rather than mere tokenism. Additionally, addressing conflicts, instability, and displacement should be prioritized, as women and children often suffer the most.

Indeed, Ethiopia’s story of women in politics is not just a domestic struggle but a potent microcosm of the bigger and global fight for gender equality. The echoes of powerful queens like Queen of Sheba, Empress Taytu and Empress Zewditu, who once steered the nation’s destiny, ring hollow against the persistent reality of cultural and religious constraints that confine modern Ethiopian women. This systemic marginalization, mirrored across the globe, is not merely a societal injustice but a squandered opportunity. By silencing the voices and hindering the potential of women, nations like Ethiopia impede their progress.

The roots of this disenfranchisement lie deep within entrenched cultural biases and patriarchal structures. Religious doctrines are often misinterpreted to justify the relegation of women to domestic spheres. These biases translate into societal expectations that discourage women from pursuing public careers, fostering a vicious cycle of underrepresentation. Furthermore, the pervasive issue of gender-based violence creates a climate of fear and intimidation, further discouraging women from venturing into the public sphere.

However, focusing solely on the challenges obscures a crucial truth: women’s political empowerment is not just a moral but a strategic necessity. Studies consistently demonstrate the positive correlation between women’s political participation and a nation’s development. When women have a seat at the table, policies are more likely to reflect the entire population’s needs, leading to more equitable and sustainable development strategies.

For Ethiopia to unlock this potential, a multi-pronged approach is required. Firstly, dismantling the scaffolding of cultural biases necessitates a comprehensive educational campaign. This campaign, targeted at men and women, must challenge traditional norms and promote a cultural shift recognizing women’s full potential as leaders and equal participation in society.

Secondly, silence must be transformed into amplification. Meaningful representation goes beyond quotas—it necessitates creating an environment where women’s voices are actively heard and valued within political parties and the larger political landscape. Mentorship programmes can connect experienced female leaders with aspiring candidates, fostering a sense of community and providing invaluable guidance.

Thirdly, addressing gender-based violence requires a zero-tolerance policy approach. Robust legal frameworks and social safety nets are crucial to ensure women’s safety and security within the home and the public sphere.

It required a critical lens to examine existing policies and strategies. Do they address the specific needs and concerns of women? Are women actively involved in their formulation and implementation? By ensuring women’s voices shape these processes, Ethiopia can move towards policies that empower all its citizens.

The legacy of powerful Ethiopian queens resonates as a powerful reminder of women’s capacity for leadership. By prioritizing eliminating gender-based barriers and empowering women to participate meaningfully in the political sphere, Ethiopia can honour its past and serve as a beacon of progress for the world. This is not just about correcting historical injustices but about unlocking the full potential of a nation and, by extension, the global community. EBR

12th Year • March 2024 • No. 127

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