Ethiopia’s three weeks of historic firsts

19 Nov 2018

Women take centre stage in Prime Minister Abiy’s new Government line up

In just three weeks, Ethiopia made history with the elevation of women to top government posts: a cabinet reshuffle saw a gender-balanced cabinet with women taking up half the ministerial posts, the first female president and first female supreme court president.

These measures are part of Prime Minister Abiy’s latest political and economic reforms since taking office in April 2018 and are huge milestones in Ethiopian political history.

…Cabinet reshuffle

As part of ongoing reforms taking place in the country, Prime Minister Abiy named a new Cabinet on 16th October, with half the posts being taken up by women – a historic first for Ethiopia, and Africa in general.

The cabinet reshuffle saw the number of ministerial positions reduced from 28 to 20, with half of the cabinet posts now held by women, including key Ministries such as the Ministry of Peace, Trade and Industry, and Defence.

“Our women ministers will disprove the old adage that women can’t lead. This decision is the first in the history of Ethiopia and probably in Africa…This is to show respect to the women for all the contribution they have made to the country. The new cabinet is expected to reform their respective ministries, remove the walls of bureaucracy, and bring innovation and technology to provide services efficiently.”

 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

The Prime Minister said the appointments took into consideration competence and educational background and are move towards forming a more inclusive and “gender-balanced” government.

Aisha Mohammed, formerly Minister of Construction, will now serve as Defence Minister – the first woman to hold that position in the country.

Muferiat Kamil will lead the newly-established Ministry of Peace, which will oversee the intelligence and security agencies. Similarly, in the April 2018 reshuffle Minister Muferiat was elected speaker of the House of People’s Representatives and was the first woman to hold that position in the country’s history.

Dr Workneh Gebeyehu (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Dr Amir Aman (Minister of Health), Dr Sileshi Bekele (Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity) and Berhanu Tsegaye (Attorney General with the Rank of Minister) retained their previous posts as ministers.

Prime Minister Abiy’s nominations were unanimously approved by the Parliament.

Historic

Ethiopia now joins a handful of countries, mostly European, where women make up 50% or more of ministerial positions, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and U.N. Women.

Days after Ethiopia’s announcement, Rwanda became the second country in Africa to announce a gender-balanced Cabinet, although women already make up 61% of parliament members in Rwanda.

A full list of Cabinet Ministers is available on our website.

…first female President

In yet another historic move, and just days after Prime Minister Abiy named the new gender-balanced Cabinet, Ambassador Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed as the fourth President of Ethiopia, replacing outgoing President, Dr Mulatu Teshome.

The decision was made by a unanimous vote during a special joint session of Ethiopia’s two legislative houses of parliament – the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation.

A seasoned diplomat, Ambassador Sahle-Work becomes Ethiopia’s first female president and, currently, the only female head of state in Africa.

Photo: President Sahle-Work (second left) shortly after her appointment together with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

As president, and as per the Ethiopian Constitution, Ambassador Sahle-Work can expect to serve two six-year terms.

In her inaugural address to Parliament, the newly-appointed President committed to working for the cause of peace in the country while exerting every effort to make gender equality a reality in Ethiopia.

“We have no other option than peace to realise the vision of building a great nation,” she said.

“If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realise a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.”

“The reform is expected to be complex and to have multiple challenges,” the President said, adding that the joint efforts and unity of the government and other political parties is required to overcome these challenges.

She thanked outgoing President Mulatu Teshome, who resigned from his post on 24th October, for his services to the country during the past five years. Dr Mulatu resigned one year ahead of his term ending, saying he wanted to be part of change and reforms taking place in the country.

“By example, President Mulatu has shown us what role we can play for the sake of the reforms,” she said, adding “I hope other leaders at all levels will follow suit.”

A seasoned diplomat

Ambassador Sahle-Work brings a wealth of experience to the position. Immediately prior to being appointed president, Ambassador Sahle-Work was serving as the Special Representative of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, to the African Union and Head of the UN Office to the African Union – the first woman to be appointed to that position. In 2011, she was appointed to the position of Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON).

She has also served as Ambassador of Ethiopia to Senegal, Djibouti and France, and held a number of other high-level positions including Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and as Director-General for African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia.

…first woman to head supreme court

As the trend continues, on 1st November, the Parliament appointed Meaza Ashenafi as the country’s first female Supreme Court President.

“Ethiopia’s march towards gender parity in key leadership positions continues unabated,” PM Abiy’s then chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, wrote on Twitter. “Meaza Ashenafi is one of Ethiopia’s most seasoned lawyers and a prominent women rights activist.”

A former high court judge, Meaza was also an advisor on the writing of the Ethiopian constitution, and founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). As EWLA’s Executive Director, Meaza successfully defended a 14-year-old girl accused of killing a man who raped her in a story that was dramatised in the 2014 movie produced by Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie, titled “Difret”. She also helped start Enat Bank, the first women’s bank in the country.

In an interview with the BBC, Meaza said “This is an honour and a distinct privilege. This kind of offer does not come every day and this is a new chapter in our country as we go through a transformation…It will be a privilege if I am able to contribute to the independence of our judiciary… [and] the government is ready to ensure that I get all the support I need to build an independent judiciary.

On becoming the first woman to hold the job, as well as the other recent promotions of women, Meaza said:

“I am so happy that the glass ceiling is shattered, and my daughters can dream of becoming anyone they want to be in Ethiopia.”

 

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