The End of the Beginning: The Charade of Representational Politics Needs to Give Way to Substantive Gains in Gender Justice

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a discussion for the members of a forum of women leaders in the public sector. Throughout the day, I helped these women of power explore the gender dimensions of their public roles as well as the ways in which they can foster strategic sisterhood as a means to strengthen the impact of their roles. As our conversation deepened, a few phrases came up repeatedly: strength, sacrifice, and service. I joked with the women that representation by such superwomen should transform Ethiopia in the very near future, but I worried at the narrative that expects so much from women leaders while almost expecting them to fail. One of the women called this the “‘yihew, eyiwat’ or ‘watch her fail’ syndrome.”
Where leadership is still masculine, grueling meeting schedules make it nearly impossible to balance parenting and work; and where sisterhood is scant on the ground, women’s representation acts as a revolving door, testing who can survive the longest. In this reflection on the occasion of International Women’s Month, I will question what the hits and misses of gender equality-as-representation has meant to the quest of gender justice in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian women are currently presented in formal politics in a higher proportion than in any other time in modernity. For those of us who have spent our careers advocating for better political representation for women Ethiopians, October 2019 represented a watershed moment that we had scarcely believed we would see in our lifetimes. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made history when in the early heady days of the Reform Process, he named our first woman President, a woman Chair of the National Election Board, a woman President of the Supreme Court, and a gender-equal ministerial cabinet, one of only a handful in the world at the time. While some of us were elated, the more seasoned among us cautioned against the easy answers that lie in equating representation-through-appointment with substantive representation and more importantly, a tangible change in the lives of Ethiopian women and girls.

As important as it is to see women from all corners of our beautiful land representing their communities on the Parliament floor and on the Council of Ministers that determines our lives, it did not take long for gender-equality observers to note that the Reform Process was not as invested in structural change as it was in representational politics. The first blow came with the reinstitution of a Ministry that in representing the largest segments of the population: women, children and youth, is designed to not succeed in serving any of them. In the reshuffle that followed the resounding win of the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party in the national elections of June 2021, this state machinery which has the mandate to improve the lives of a huge chunk of the population was further merged with Social Affairs. The joke goes that it was only elderly men—who were not put in charge of a Ministry that is ineffectual by design—but that now, they too have been added to the mix.

If we had our earlier doubts that gender equality is a soft, ‘social’ issue in the eyes of our new government, instead of the political question that we had hoped that it would be recognized as, then they have been put to rest. Representing a slight majority of the citizens of a country with no coastline but which has a Maritime Affairs Authority, and one with a stand-alone Ministry of Mines, Ethiopian women get no dedicated government structure to implement any meaningful change in terms of addressing gender equality and justice questions across the line ministries. The reform has missed a great opportunity to impact gender equality and justice beyond the easy solutions of representation.

Nor have the bounties of representation been consistent: the Ministerial cabinet is now down to 36Pct (eight Ministers out of 22) as of the last national election. While gender equality hopefuls had looked forward to a leadership and administration that would finally seriously foster gender equality, encountering the old wine in new bottles that characterizes the government’s interaction has been a painful let down. In this regard, the ethnic-based para-government women’s associations whose numbers rank in the hundred thousand and which were EPRDF propaganda machines in the past, are now working along Prosperity Party principles which are so vague that as Dr. Adem K. Abebe put it at a panel on ‘Making the National Dialogue Work’, any outcome can look like success.

My argument in this Op-Ed is not to decry the representation of women, and in many cases, our remaining women Ministers, as well as our President, not only preform formidably at their mandated tasks but also stand up for gender equality and justice. However, as President Sahle-Work Zewde noted in her inaugural address, women’s representation can only be the beginning, and not the end of the struggle for gender equality. Indeed, the need to turn our focus to gender justice has never appeared starker. It is in a country of such visible, if dwindling, representation, that women and girls face sexual violence on a hitherto unknown scale, and every catastrophe that has hit Ethiopia in the past three years—from the locust infestation to the COVID pandemic, and from the war in the northern part of the country to other conflicts that erupt like seasonal fires—have all had the face of a woman. Girls and women have borne an unfair share of the human toll of these difficult years, with their vulnerability and utter lack of protection for their lives and dignity put on full display.

Where the government has often failed in its first duty of the protection of its citizens from harm, it has nevertheless continued to build its institutions and implement its policies, and these too have often missed opportunities to contribute to gender equality and justice. A case in point are the various plans and policies that have passed without much consideration for gender equality principles, including the Ten-Year Economic Plan, and even the extension of the representational politics that gained the reform process much accolades to the newly established National Dialogue Commission.

However, there is always hope, and in some ways, the fissures of representational politics offer an opportunity. Once the table with the crumbs that were assumed to satisfy our quest for gender justice and equality has been lifted and the charade has been given up, we have the chance to recalibrate our quest. A reconfiguration that will take into consideration not only what we ask of our government but what we also ask of ourselves as members of various women’s rights movements and organizations.

On this occasion of the International Women’s Month, we demand from our democratically-elected government, a serious reckoning of the sexual violence that diminishes the lives of Ethiopian women, girls, and increasingly boys. Rebuilding a post-conflict society, when the various conflicts finally abate, will require making accountability front-and-center, and the grievous human rights abuses meted out by the armed forces representing the Ethiopian government need to be punished and learnt from.

A post-conflict society will need its women as well as its men to rebuild peace, and gender work needs to be understood as a discipline that requires rigor and a passionate infusion by women and men committed to real change. This year, we celebrate International Women’s Month with a firm resolute to work for justice beyond representation; for a safe and just Ethiopia where women’s human rights are a real component of our budding democracy, and not the afterthought that it has long been; and an Ethiopia to leave in pride to our daughters, and to our sons.

10th Year • Mar 2022 • No. 105

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