Women in Ethiopia

National Policy on Ethiopian Women

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Ethiopian women are actively involved in all aspects of their society's life. Women are both producers and procreators and they are also active participants in the social, political, and cultural activities of their communities. However the varied and important roles they play have not always been recognised. The discriminatory political, economic and social rules and regulations prevailing in Ethiopia have barred women from enjoying the fruits of their labour. Without equal opportunities, they have lagged behind men in all fields of self-advancement.

Economic development is unthinkable without the participation of women. In some economic sectors women even constitute a proportionally larger group of the labour force than men. However, because their participation in the economy has not been valued, Ethiopian women have not received their fair share of the nation's wealth.



Before the 1974 Revolution, women's organised activities were run mainly by non-governmental bodies such as the Ethiopian Women's Welfare Association, the Ethiopian Officer's Wives Association, the Ethiopian Female Students' Association. These Associations were, however, limited in scope, and only existed in the cities. They had little or no impact on government policies, laws, regulations or development programs.

After 1974, the Revolutionary Ethiopian Women's Association (REWA) was established by proclamation, but this organisation was too monolithic and too close to the Derg to be of any real use to women. The purpose of its establishment was, in fact, the consolidation of the Derg's power. Promoting the interests of women was not high on its agenda nor was it designed to influence government policies or help women benefit from development programs. As a result there was little improvement in the lives of Ethiopian women, whether in the social, economic or political sphere, especially of those who lived in the rural areas.

Although a few development agencies, particularly NGOs engaged in relief and rehabilitation work, had attempted to incorporate women's issues into their work programs, they did not show the expected results. This was because the previous government had not given women’s development the priority it deserved and therefore had not created a conducive atmosphere for development initiatives for women.

During the civil war Ethiopian women made a unique contribution, both as fighters and as civilian supporters, to challenging and ousting the brutal and incompetent regime of the Derg, as well as during the famine, displacements, and drought conditions which accompanied it. Their participation in these recent events has helped to create the impetus for giving special attention to women.


Ethiopian women in the 1990s

Soon after the downfall of the Derg regime, the various political and national organisations, setting aside their differences, formed a Transitional Government whose principles were set out in a Charter in which peace was the main principle of governance. This brought a period of relief to all Ethiopians, especially to women. The democratic process is able to grow and develop effectively when all people are given equal encouragement to exercise their democratic rights, and when women can experience the benefits of their labour on an equal basis with men. With this realisation, the government of Ethiopia, both the Transitional Government and the first elected Government in 1995, has given priority to the speeding up of equality between men and women.

Until recently, governments in Ethiopia have not had any policy on women's affairs. Hence they have not been seen as important potential beneficiaries of government development programs. Although women have made substantial contributions to the struggle Ethiopian people have waged to ensure their rights and freedoms, their struggle up to now has not been sufficiently institutionalised. Gender issues do not only concern women. Women's problems cannot be solved by women alone, but by the coordinated efforts of the society as a whole, including government. Careful planning in full consultation with women is essential, drawing lessons from past failures and experiences.

Women’s demand to participate actively in national development and to exercise their right to enjoy its fruits is now receiving support in government and local communities. One effect has been the creation of a modus operandi which is increasingly free from partiality and sexual discrimination. Of course there is still a long way to go.


Practical steps

The first priorities are to improve the level of income of women by facilitating opportunities and woman-friendly conditions in the workplace, to improve the health and nutrition of mothers and their children and to upgrade and improve their education. It is also necessary to encourage favourable conditions for the formation of new women's associations, as well as to strengthen existing associations, so that women can have a hand in the resolution of their problems. Only women know the extent and difficulties of domestic labour, especially in the countryside, and they should have a say in devising solutions. After all, it is only when women are released from back-breaking domestic work that they will be able to participate in the national development effort on equal terms with men and go on to experience the benefits of their participation.

Women should not be restricted to any one association. Instead, they should be free to form associations of their choice in accordance with their specific needs or professions. To that end, it is important to set up conditions in which women will feel confident to initiate ideas and practical activities in ways which suit them and which will promote their interests. The government has the obligation to give them its unreserved support.

This Policy on Ethiopian Women has, therefore, been formulated to focus on what the Government ought to do for women, and what women must do for themselves through their own free associations, as well as to show the relationships between the two. This policy is based on the principles mentioned above.


Objectives of the Policy

  1. To facilitate conditions conducive to the speeding up of equality between men and women so that women can participate in the political, social, and economic life of their country on equal terms with men, ensuring that their right to own property as well as their other human rights are respected and that they are not excluded from the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour or from performing public functions and being decision makers.
  2. To facilitate the necessary condition whereby rural women can have access to basic social services and to ways and means of lightening their workload.
  3. To eliminate, step by step, prejudices as well as customary and other practices, that are based on the idea of male supremacy and to enable women to hold public office and to participate in the decision making process at all levels.

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Gender issues in Ethiopia

Implementing the National Policy on Women

This report summary is one of a regular series on ongoing operational, economic and sector work carried out by the World Bank and its member governments in the Africa Region. It is published periodically by the Knowledge Networks, Information and Technology Center on behalf of the Region



The National Policy on Women (Women’s Policy) formulated in 1993, aimed to create appropriate structures within government offices and institutions to establish equitable and gender-sensitive public policies. The Government of Ethiopia in 1995, under its new constitution, renewed its commitment towards this policy.

The government initiated an ambitious and extensive process of regionalization, whereby new regional boundaries were demarcated and administrative powers devolved to regional governments, which were authorised to implement all development policies. This represented a departure from the earlier practice of centralized project management by ministries. This more participatory and decentralized form of governance made the implementation of the national policy a more challenging endeavour. There was correspondingly a great need to build the delivery capacity of the regional governments. While the central level of government promoted gender-sensitive policies and development interventions, very little was known about the constraints and issues at the regional levels.


Objectives of the Women in Development (WID) Report

After discussions with the Minister, the Women’s Affairs Office initiated the process of preparing a report with a very regional focus. The procedure for preparation was discussed with the government and other relevant stakeholders. Issues were identified jointly through Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) to bring in the voices of grassroots women stakeholders, and through preparation of background reports by a number of local consultants.

The WID report examines and identifies institutional, legal, and regulatory constraints on the expeditious and effective implementation of the women’s policy. The objectives of the report were clear. It would:


Main Findings

Interventions for women largely consist of ad hoc and unconnected self-standing projects, which, if continued, will remain gender neutral and ineffective in delivering benefits to women. The biggest challenge faced by the regional governments is that top-down activities do not reach women effectively due to lack of institutional capacity at the sub-regional level and because of lack of participation in delivery assistance services. Moreover, the development plans for women were not demand-driven and therefore failed to recognise substantial variations across regions. This resulted in women being disconnected from all development interventions.


Legal and Regulatory Issues


Institutional Issues


Key Recommendations

Consistent Public Policy

Public policy should be made consistent by amending discriminatory provisions in the civil court which promote traditional gender biases.


Mitigation of the Impact of Inequitable Customary Laws

    1. By examining the applicability of customary laws by making women aware of their legal rights;
    2. By strengthening awareness of women’s roles and rights by building consensus against customary practices.


Increased Access of Women to Economic and Productive Resources

Regional governments need to:

    1. Increase women’s access to land and natural resources;
    2. Facilitate the entry of poor women into labour markets through access to credits.


Better access to legal services for women needs to be provided

    1. By community leaders being sensitised to legal issues;
    2. Through training of women family arbitrators;
    3. Through the establishment of small legal funds for poor women who need legal services.


Affirmative action is needed

    1. to provide women access to civil and village councils;
    2. Legal and regulatory procedures should be made minimal to facilitate the formation and working of small grassroots groups.


The regional government needs to:

    1. Strengthen the technical capacity of women to implement schemes;
    2. Increase awareness of gender issues at its bureaus and amongst partners involved in formulating development plans, in particular in its sub-regional entities.


Gender-sensitive development plans should be the mandate of the regional planning bureaus which incorporate monitorable indicators for policy formulation and project planning.


Incentives to bureaus

Regional governments should provide incentives to bureaus that undertake gender-responsive development plans.


Delegation of powers and responsibilities

Regional governments need to delegate power and responsibilities to Women’s Affairs Bureaus and Women’s Affairs Departments for them to carry out their mandates effectively. Furthermore, proper evaluation and monitoring systems need to be in place to prevent incorrect gender-disaggregated data from negatively impacting the programs.


Implications for Donors

Donors should focus support on four specific areas:

    1. Capacity-building which needs to target the sub-regional levels and include training in the identification, design, and implementation of gender-sensitive development interventions;
    2. Programs which promote literacy, family planning and early childhood interventions;
    3. Women micro-entrepreneurs;
    4. The implementation of new gender-sensitive legal and institutional reforms by the government.


Next Steps

A Bank-assisted WID project leading out of the recommendations and finding of the report is under consideration for Ethiopia. The proposed project aims to assist socially and economically vulnerable women to benefit from the increasingly expanding economy and private sector opportunities. It will seek to improve the standard of living of women and contribute to poverty alleviation. Addressing the constraints to implementing the National Policy on Women and supporting the establishment of grassroots women’s organisations will build women’s ability to organise themselves to effectively voice their concerns and preferences about their economic, social and civic rights.


Implementing the Ethiopian Policy for Women : Institutional and Regulatory Issues, 1998. The Women’s Affairs Office, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, The World Bank. For more information, contact Gita Gopal, Rm. J9-063, World Bank, 1818 H Street NW, Washington D.C. 20433. Tel.: (202) 4736835; e-mail : ggopal@worldbank.org