Women in power – celebrating the 1 year anniversary of the first woman to become president in Ethiopia

Karis Wright | Oct 24, 2019

Friday 25th October marks one year since Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman to become president in Ethiopia and currently the only woman head of state on the African continent, was appointed. Sahle-Work’s appointment was one of many changes that has been seen by many as a positive shift towards gender parity.  Here at Womankind we are celebrating this anniversary, which marks a milestone for the women’s movement in Ethiopia and a step towards securing equal rights for all women.

Rigbe Gebrehawaria

In May, we had the opportunity to sit down with Rigbe Gebrehawaria, a women’s rights activist in Ethiopia. She talked to us about the achievements of the women’s movement over the last year and what she hopes will be accomplished in the future.

Womankind: Hi Rigbe, tell us a bit about your work!

Rigbe: “I work on disability inclusion focused around women’s disabilities and work with organisations such as Setaweet to make their services and their movements more inclusive of women with disabilities.  I have worked on inclusive projects, firstly on economic empowerment for persons with disabilities and then on accessibility, making public services more accessible.

I also used to volunteer for Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association. I volunteered in legal aid counselling and that exposed me to cases of abuse, and the kind of challenges faced by women in general - in divorce and in marriages with domestic violence. So that’s one factor that contributed to me to working in gender and women’s rights.” 

Womankind: What do you think has been achieved over the last year?

Rigbe: “The 50/50 cabinet representation in parliament and having a woman president. It’s very important to have those models there, it’s good for other women to see and think it is possible to be there, to be ambitious, and to have a political personality. When you see a lot of women taking actions and making decisions, leading the society, you will learn that women can also be in these positions. It will affect the legacy of women, the way you see other women. It’s a precedence for the society and if it is sustainable, eventually it’s consistent and you know that women can make their own choices, they can be what choose to be, you start accepting and living with that.

Rigbe Gebrehawaria

Womankind: 50/50 representation in cabinet seems like a significant step towards equality in Ethiopia, but how significant has this change been in creating a more positive society for women?

Ribge: “There are changes. People are more aware about domestic violence and other things that happen and a lot of groups are working on gender. But progress in so far as the society being more gender sensitive- I doubt it!  But I cannot say there is no change, people are more aware, but are people really practising being more gender sensitive? I don’t think so. Even the political commitments that you see are hanging on the top, and they are not really coming down to the lower levels at grass roots. It’s just 50% cabinet women and that’s it, it might show some commitment, but you don’t really see change.”

Women’s movements in Ethiopia have been pushing for women’s rights continuously, even in a society that until last year placed huge restrictions on free speech. But how do you address the needs of a diverse group of women and make sure the women’s movement amplifies diverse voices and is inclusive. We talked to Rigbe about the importance of an inclusive women’s movement.

Womankind: In your experience what approach is needed to address different women’s needs?

Rigbe: “A lot of women’s movements are not inclusive of ‘other’. I can talk about disability, because that’s the area I am engaged in and I can know about. Every woman’s challenge is different, so let’s present them as they are so that everyone is being represented. One issue is not greater than the other, it should be addressed specifically, when you say women, which women are you talking about? Be specific, when you talk about some women experiencing a certain challenge, let’s talk about those women! Let’s not say ‘Ethiopian women’ or ‘African women’, of course there are people experiencing the same thing, but that’s not an issue for everyone. So I would say the way we address it should be different and specific."

Womankind: What are your hopes for the future of women in Ethiopia?

Rigbe: “In the aspect of women in leadership and decision making I see positive change and I’m hoping there will be more changes for women in the future. Especially for women that are already in some level of education or career, I see that they will be taking offices and leading and making official decisions. In that aspect I hope to see changes.”

There is no doubt that the appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde has been positive in many ways with women and girls now able to see themselves represented at one of the highest offices in the country. While representation is important, there needs to be real change to everyday women’s real life at all levels in society.  In the years to come we want to see a society that supports all women to live independent lives free from violence and free to carve their own paths.  

Find out more about how we’re working to achieve that, learn about our work in Ethiopia.

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