“In Ethiopia, Assertive Women are called Authoritarian”

Born in Aksum, in the state of Tigray, Selome grew up with parents who were both teachers. This contributed to her outspoken and outgoing personality. After completing her primary and secondary education in Addis Ababa, she went to Addis Ababa University during the Dergue regime. But she didn’t finish her studies. Instead, she went to Eastern Europe and enrolled at the University of Belorussia, in the then-Soviet Union. After her third year, Selome dropped out and went first to West Germany, and then South Hadley, Massachusetts where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations.

She moved to Boston, Massachusetts, working in the Ethiopian Community Centre as a Refugee Programme Coordinator for a few years, and went to Washington DC to work in the Ethiopian Community Development Council. There, she was recruited by the EPRDF-led government which took power in Addis in 1991. She was invited to return home and work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a press counsellor. Soon, she was assigned to assist in setting up the Ethiopian embassy in Washington DC and worked in the Embassy for six years as Press Counsellor and then Political Counsellor.

Upon her return home, she became the first general manager of Ethiopia Radio and Television Agency (ERTA), after the Agency was detached from the then-Ministry of Information. Despite criticism, Selome introduced influential television programmes such as ‘Aynachin’ which were able to challenge government officials and hold them accountable. Unlike its conventional practice of serving as the mouthpiece of the government, ERTA during her tenure became an institution servicing public interest. 

Selome also served as the government’s spokesperson during the Ethio-Eritrea border war in 1998. Since then, she has been vocal about issues related to women’s empowerment, and masterminded Yegna, an all-female acting and pop group established with the aim of reaching and empowering young women. EBR’s Samson Berhane visited her workplace, Emerge Consultancy, where the mother of two is producing a new radio show, to learn about Selome’s career trajectory. 

EBR: You helped to reopen the Ethiopian Embassy in the United States in 1991. It is public knowledge that during the Dergue regime the diplomatic relationship between Ethiopia and the United States was not smooth. What did you do to improve it and how challenging it was?

Selome: The biggest challenge was the dire diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Since our country was starting a new era [in 1991], new ideas, including ours, were highly appreciated. There was excitement on both sides to advocate and witness change.

We were able to establish our base in Washington DC, but there were many opposition and supporting parties and even those with no weight on diplomacy. These people would share their impressions of our country as a whole. One of the barriers at the time was convincing them to come together for the betterment of Ethiopia.

The other challenge was that many countries from all over the world were lobbying in the United States, including many European and Middle Eastern countries. It was hard to be noticed among that crowd. We were facing a communication problem. Having a platform to present your ideas was essential. Back then, most countries had lobbying firms; we had only 11 employees. But it wasn’t as difficult for me since I was educated and lived in the United States, and I was able to understand the societal values.

What role did the Embassy play in motivating Diasporas in the United States to invest in Ethiopia? 

One of our main tasks was to meet with the Diaspora community and discuss various topics. For instance, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to America twice to meet with the Diaspora, as did various other politicians. We also published an Amharic newsletter to be distributed to every Ethiopian-born person in the US. Its main topic was not political but to advertise the opportunities available in Ethiopia. To my knowledge, most Ethiopians don’t need a lot of convincing to return to their country. However, there were reasons for them to stay as well, whether because they have already built a family there, the bureaucratic procedure in Ethiopia or lack of knowledge about the opportunities being provided in their country.

Many politicians claim that those times mark the deterioration of the trust between the Diaspora community and the Ethiopian government.

I don’t agree with such claims. In the 1990s, Ethiopia was overwhelmed with unrest and turmoil, so opportunities that weren’t even available to citizens couldn’t be given to the Diaspora community.

Do you believe that the current relationship between the Diaspora community and the Ethiopian government is healthy?

No I don’t. There are three categories of Diaspora community. Some of them are not involved in politics at all. Others call themselves activists by advocating their political beliefs, whereas the remaining become involved in politics, forming and joining political parties. I hope the government will be able to engage such forces constructively. Currently, we are witnessing no engagement from both sides, just criticism against each other.

Soon after you concluded your assignment in the US, you became general manager of the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA). Some claim that you were an authoritarian leader during your time there.

I don’t measure the success of my stay at any workplace by whom I please but by what I achieve, and what new ideas I bring to the table. I believe that ERTA reached its peak success during my tenure. It was then that programmes that were highly appreciated by the public such as ‘Awdeseb’, ‘Aynachen’ and ‘Seket’ were broadcast. Close to 15 years after my departure, and years after the programmes were off the air, studies are being done to bring them back.

I created an environment that enabled people to create those kinds of programmes. I encouraged competition; I think it is the key to perfection. I remember I was once asked by the media why I didn’t appoint the heads of the newsroom, instead of the employees choosing their own leaders. [I think this shows] I wasn’t authoritarian. In Ethiopia, there is a huge problem of calling assertive women authoritarian. On the other hand, if a man does the same, he is called strong. I would say my leadership style at the Agency was transformational because my decisions were disruptive. I didn’t necessary care about the status-quo.

What was the reason for your departure from ERTA? 

The main reason for my leaving was the involvement of government officials on the board of ERTA. When board members started to be selected from government offices, a conflict of interest started to surface, which was against the Agency’s independence. The Agency’s establishment proclamation states that it should be public institution that operates independently.

Do you think those conflicts of interest still persist? 

Since government officials are still on the board, the conflict of interest continues. In the mean time, both the government and the people are feeling the loss.

Following your resignation from the ERTA, you served as executive director of the Network for Ethiopian Women’s Associations (NEWA). What were your achievements?

Meaza Ashenafi [a prominent women’s rights activist; cofounder and first executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association] offered me the job of the executive director. I was tasked with realizing what they had planned for years- establishing a network which connects women. I believe one of the biggest achievements was forming NEWA. Then, it started to get the attention of funding organizations. Soon after, I gave up the post, but I continue to serve NEWA as an advisor on a voluntary basis. If we look at what the Association has done so far, it streamlined funds allocated to support women in different aspects. This enabled NEWA to support many civil societies, even small ones, such as the Ethiopian Media Women Association.

The Association also fronted campaigns for gender rights and publicized victims like Aberash Bekele [a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl who was abducted and raped in the traditional custom of telefa and subsequently arrested after killing her captor in self-defence].

We are witnessing a greater number of organizations engaged in women’s issues.  Do you think the effort by these organizations is enough?  

The organizations working on women’s empowerment are still insignificant, both in number and visibility. But what should be applauded in our country is the youths’ tendency to organize and fight gender inequality as a movement, through social media and other platforms. This is inexpensive, sustainable and it helps anyone engaged in women’s empowerment not to be dependent on funding organizations.

What are the inefficiencies observed on the government’s side in addressing women’s issues? 

The government is weak in the implementation of its own policies and laws. There is no accountability, or tools that measure the effectiveness of government officials assigned to increase women’s participation in the economy and ensure gender equality. There is no follow-up in educational institutions to see if they are striving to raise female enrolment. There are also no indicators that show the trend of women’s participation in public institutions. The Ministry of Woman and Children Affairs is very weak in administration, structure and follow-up.

What is your view towards the application of affirmative action to improve women’s participation? 

Affirmative action is always controversial. However, it is important to look at what happened in the past to know whether affirmative action is appropriate in a given country or not. I believe affirmative action is needed until gender equality is attained. But it should be lifted after ensuring equality. Affirmative action should not be implemented in work places because it destroys competence. Instead, it is important to build an institution comfortable for both genders and free from sexual harassment. But it is important as a nation to reach a consensus on how long to implement affirmative action.

Civil societies were active in supporting the women’s empowerment agenda before the amendment of the charities and society law in 2009.

I have been against the law since its inception. It doesn’t make sense when such measures are taken by a government, which gets more than 30Pct of its [national budget] through aid and loans. The fact that similar laws apply to all types of civil societies makes no sense. The government should have first assessed if there are beneficiaries, such as women and children, who would be affected by the enactment of the law.  It is clear it was prepared without conducting studies.

It was a deliberate action taken by the government after the 2005 election.  Looking at what happened after the law (the political unrest and instability that rocked the country) would help to understand its toxicity. Speaking generally, it should be lifted as soon as possible.

You have been criticized for using an intervention that revolves around the women’s acting and pop group known as Yegna, which some claim has less effect on empowerment in developing countries like Ethiopia. Do you agree?

Considering the number of years it was active, I believe it was effective. It has only been on air for a few years. For instance, during the recent Adwa Celebration, it was hard to find a place where Yegna’s song “Taytu” was not playing.  It has a huge number of listeners in Amhara state and Addis Ababa. Many relate the characters in the radio drama to their own lives. But as it was aired in only a few areas, it is too early to know its total effectiveness on girls’ lives. It was effective enough in creating awareness about gender equality.

According to statistics published by the then-Girl Hub, 10 million people have listened to the radio drama or have listened to it at some point, even if they don’t listen to every episode. Is the figure not a little exaggerated?

Is it? There are 100 million people in Ethiopia.

We spoke to some people who took part in the study that generated those statistics, via the Sub-Sahara Training and Research Centre.

Data collectors had to make a lot of effort and travelled great distances just to find radio listeners.

In fact, it was [Girl Effect] who carried out that study. Sub-Sahara just carried out the research portion [data gathering].

What we found out was that   in many places, there were no radios. If there were, the father would control it, not the children, and especially not the daughters. So, we did two things. We distributed flash drives with the episodes to mini-media clubs in 3,000 elementary schools in Amhara state . We also worked with Women’s Development Army; women organised in groups of 30 people each.

What has been the overall performance of the programme? 

It has brought awareness of girls and the issues that affect them. Second, girls have found virtual friends with whom they can identify. The radio drama has brought up major topics, like early marriage. Above all, I think the major success is its popularity amongst men and boys, especially in the state of Amhara.

If it has had this kind of effect, why did the Department for International Development (DFID) withdraw its funding?

Do you think this was the reason DFID withdrew funding? The Daily Mail that diminished our activities didn’t come to Ethiopia, conduct a study and go back and report. The Daily Mail is a right leaning paper, everyone knows this. It was saying that funds shouldn’t be wasted in Ethiopia to create the Ethiopian Spice Girls. But they never said it didn’t have an impact.

I have seen some reports that stated the effect of Yegna was not what was being reported.

The Guardian recently wrote an article that Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom, recently said the programme was performing well. So the withdrawal of the funds is strictly related to the UK’s internal aid politics. However, in spite of DFID’s withdrawal, we still have other contributors.

But some programmes have stopped. For instance, the radio drama has stopped. What are the other activities that ended? 

The work we were doing with mini-media in different schools, which for me was the most important, because that’s how you make a lasting change, has stopped. The work we did with various Women’s Development armies in the state of Amhara was cut off when the funding stopped.

Why don’t you find other sponsors for these programmes? 

First, the brand Yegna is owned by Girl Effect, not me. So, I can’t just pick it up, find another funding source and move on. Girl Effect is looking for another source of funding, especially individual donors, which is much better, because when an individual believes in what you are doing and gives you money, you have the freedom to do what you believe in.

Are you looking for domestic or international sponsors? 

Aid is always aid. The best thing would be if it was funded by donors from our own country, and that is what we must explore. It could be in kind, it wouldn’t need to be in cash. If we could use their infrastructure, most of our expenses would be reduced. That is what would make it sustainable.

You have been running Yegna as a project manager. Did your role reduce with the scaled down activities? 

It is not that my role has been reduced; it is just there is nothing to administer. In the past, we were carrying out many projects. It was not just a talk show and a drama. So we had 47 staff. There was a bigger role for me. Right now, there is only script writing. I help with content development and writing, but there aren’t the same activities as before.

6th Year . April 16  – May 15 2018 . No.60

Samson Berhane


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