Government Must go Beyond Striking Gender Balance

When Sahle-work Zewde was appointed as President of the Federation, feminist groups and Ethiopians at large applauded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) pick for the post. He was further commended when he filled half of his cabinet with women alongside other key posts. As laudable as these decisions were, his time in the premiership is identified as one that has brought nightmare to women nationwide. His administration’s incapability to put conflicts nationwide under control has put women in particular in precarious positions—leaving them with added responsibility and burden in caring for their themselves and families—while denying them their human, social, and economic rights.
Ever since the Premier stepped into office, the country has been rocked by violence of insurmountable pressure on women and the families they raise. Benishangul Gumuz, though relatively calmer now, has seen a series of security challenges with direct implications on women, their livelihoods, and their families. The unstoppable security challenge in western Ethiopia, particularly in Wollega of the State of Oromia, has displaced women and children. The federal government’s military confrontation with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was characterized by a series of confirmed and alleged attacks on women. TPLF’s military attacks into the states of Amhara and Afar has also been full of horrible stories of sexual assault against women.

The nightmare has continued to date, taking women away from their properties, pushing them down below the poverty line, and ensuring their continued dependency on men. It is now 27 years since the Beijing Platform for Action was signed to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life, whether in public or private. One of the areas in which systematic barriers are apparent and urgent for women is in conflict and humanitarian assistance settings. The reality faced by women that have been forced to flee and migrate is often indescribable.

At times in Ethiopia, finding temporary shelter for refugees seems to be luxury than a necessity that requires urgent response from authorities. The understanding of those in charge—on how conflict-induced humanitarian crises create the perfect environment for attacks against women—is very low to nil. Conflict and post-conflict displacement expose women to sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and even death. Ethiopian women have experienced all these and more during this administration’s conflict-ridden period.

To make matters worse, northern Ethiopia’s war was uniquely characterized by assaults on health institutions which had been providing maternal and women’s health services. Already not giving sufficient service, these establishments now have to be rebuilt and stocked, making health access to sexual assault survivors even more difficult.

Authorities must oversee the condition of women after they flee their homes and stay in temporary shelters. Strong understanding must be established that women flee their homes because they were forced to. Authorities must refrain from politicizing displaced women as just bad images of their administration or as ‘evidence’ to the ‘evilness’ of the other. They must go the required distance to support them both in the short- and long-term.

Government must also find a way of involving women to resolve conflicts themselves. There is strong evidence worldwide supporting the positive role of women in understanding and resolving conflicts. Women who have lost their husbands—most likely the family’s breadwinner—must also be supported in a way that ensures sustainable economic independence. Further, women’s rights groups and associations must involve in generally resolving women’s challenges and conflicts. The government has called out for the support of these groups when crises hit. Authorities must enable the environment for these groups to flourish and assume decision making roles during peaceful times, too. The effort to portray an image of a women-friendly administration does not seem to be backed by realities on the ground. ‘Conflict’ and ‘women-friendly’ are nothing but a paradox!

EBR 10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106

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