On October 25, Ethiopian lawmakers unanimously voted to elect Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president and their first female head of state in the modern era. This just days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed approved one of the world’s few gender balanced Cabinets, with half of the positions held by women. Earlier this year, Africa’s first female president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, left office making Sahle-Work Africa’s only current female head-of-state. Prior to becoming President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work served as an ambassador for Ethiopia in Senegal and Djibouti; she also held numerous UN positions. Immediately preceding the election, Sahle-Work was the UN representative at the African Union. With previous political experience and her positive outlook on the future of Ethiopia, the change which the world has seen thus far with Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister may only be the beginning.
Speaking to Parliament after being sworn in as Ethiopia’s President, Sahle-Work stated her pledge to peace, “I urge you all, to uphold our peace, in the name of a mother, who is the first to suffer from the absence of peace.” Despite the Ethiopian Presidency remaining mostly ceremonial with the Prime Minister holding political power, many see this Presidency as a kick-starter for changes geared toward gender equality around the world. In a Twitter post following the swearing-in ceremony, the Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Fitsum Arega, wrote, “In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life.” The idea of raising the standard is not just a notion, along with fifty percent of Ethiopia’s cabinet now occupied by women, according to USA Today, “A woman also leads the new Ministry of Peace, [and] will oversee the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service and the Federal Police Commission.” Ethiopia now joins a handful of other countries, mostly European, where women make up fifty percent or more of ministerial positions, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women. Two days after the appointments to the Cabinet, Ethiopia was also joined by Rwanda who also announced its own Cabinet with fifty percent membership being women, according to USA Today.
Ethiopia has shown some of the lowest indicators of gender equality in Sub Saharan Africa, according to UN Women, and women and girls are in general strongly disadvantaged in comparison to men. In Ethiopia as well as other parts of Africa, despite being illegal, female mutilation continues to be an issue. But despite all of the gender inequality, there are signs of hope. In the mere six months that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been in office has been pushing for political and economic reform, “he has already ‘overhauled’ the intelligence agency, scrapped a controversial state of emergency, welcomed back opposition leaders and ended a decades-old conflict with Eritrea,” according to the Evening Standard. Now, with President Sahle-Work Zewde at the helm, there could be a better chance for reform not only economically and politically but socially as well. Even better yet, with the reforms occurring in Ethiopia other nations are beginning to also reform their policies and become more gender inclusive.
Madam President Sahle-Work Zewde succeeds Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, who unexpectedly resigned as president on October 24th. Despite the presidency merely being a symbolic position, Sahle-Works appointment to the presidency was welcomed, even celebrated – the appointment has even been coined as a historic event. With a history like the one of Ethiopia, the recent events toward reform made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and those to come are expected to only increase with the new President. Ethiopia could see a great change in the coming months and years, hopefully, change that will continue to better the lives of Ethiopians and others around the world.
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