Why Ethiopia must close its political gender gap

Women urgently need to gain access to high office if the country hopes to survive, say Hilina Berhanu Degefa and Emebet Getachew.

The World Today
2 minute READ

Hilina Berhanu Degefa

Researcher and Gender Policy Expert

Emebet Getachew

Peace and security expert in the Horn of Africa

At the end of 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced the formation of a three-year national dialogue to address Ethiopia’s political crisis, looking at the ongoing civil war and conflict, inflation, unemployment, drought and other urgent domestic issues. 

But, while efforts have been made to ensure the participation of women in this dialogue, it must be more than symbolic otherwise gaps in meaningful gender inclusion could have significant implications on the very survival of the country.
One of the challenges for meaningful inclusion is that Ethiopia is a highly patriarchal society. Patriarchal norms and practices permeate all aspects of the country’s social, economic and political life. Women constitute over half of the Ethiopian population and represent 41 per cent of the national parliament.

Nevertheless, most political parties, including those with liberal credentials, are exclusively governed by men, with women taking almost no part in key decision-making processes. As a result, women are relegated to the margins of political and economic activities. 

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won praise for appointing a gender-balanced cabinet in 2018. By 2021, women accounted for just 36 per cent of positions

Though there has been little systematic study of the structural challenges faced by Ethiopian women in politics, women members of political parties encounter many barriers, including political violence, male-coded norms and sexist discourses across Ethiopian society.
The nature and scale of political violence perpetrated against women is particularly disempowering and affects their ability to participate in political spaces.

While attitudes to gender equality, sexual violence and gender discrimination are often trivialized, they remain ever-present threats in women’s lives. As late as 2016, a significant minority of men still believed wife-beating to be justified in certain situations. Even when women overcome social pressure to pursue their political ambitions, patriarchal views and practices within political party structures about the role of women significantly undermine their active participation and engagement. 

The political space is even more inaccessible to women with disabilities and in conflict and climate-related crises such as among internally displaced people and in pastoral communities. Male-coded norms ingrained at both party and community levels remain a significant concern. Specifically, sex in exchange for candidacy, inconsiderate working schedules affecting women with children and denial of access to equal information and financial resources are frequently reported as major internal hurdles among political parties.

Closing the gender gap could offer Ethiopia a new beginning

Many political initiatives designed to tackle these gender imbalances often have been driven by short-term political considerations without proper gender-gap assessment and policy analysis. In most cases, the authorities have viewed gender-targeted reforms as acts of benevolence, dispensed by the government, without adopting the legal and financial measures necessary to ensure sustainability and impact.
Take, for example, Abiy’s appointment of a 50:50 gender-balanced cabinet in 2018. At the time, much was made about its transformative potential, with the prime minister attracting widespread global approval. Yet, a cabinet reshuffle in 2021 reduced female representation to 36.3 per cent, with far less scrutiny or accountability.

The proposed national dialogue presents an ideal opportunity for Ethiopian women to begin reshaping attitudes

This indicates that gender equality in Ethiopia is not considered a priority but rather an endeavour for more opportune, ‘stable’ times. Without thorough measures that create the conditions for real change, the aspiration of having a gender-balanced cabinet will always be challenging to translate into lasting equal representation.
The proposed national dialogue presents an ideal opportunity for Ethiopian women to begin reshaping attitudes and closing the gender gap through their inclusion and participation in the political process. To do so, three issues must be addressed.
First, the varying rights of women need to be consolidated, including on identity, constitutional reform and economic issues .

Second, gender equality considerations must be absorbed into mainstream political discourse at all levels.

Third, the experiences of women in the recent war, other ongoing conflicts and past and lingering legacies of political violence targeting women from specific communities, must be acknowledged and remedied. 

If Ethiopia is indeed serious about addressing its asymmetric gender power dynamics, this national dialogue provides an excellent opportunity to begin the process. Genuine participation of women as independent actors, with their own agency, could offer Ethiopia a new beginning.