On Thursday, October 25, the Ethiopian parliament unanimously elected Sahle-Work Zewde to become the first female president of the country and she was subsequently sworn in. While the position is largely ceremonial, having a woman as head of state signifies the progressive path Ethiopia is taking and provides young women with a powerful, yet peaceful role model. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had reduced the size of the Cabinet to 20 members just a week prior to Sahle-Work’s appointment, and half of the positions were assigned to female members, most notably Defense Minister and Minister of Peace. Sahle-Work has stated that she will be focusing on achieving peace within the country, specifically dealing with the country’s ethnic-based conflicts and opening up political dialogue.
Sahle-Work’s appointment has been well-received by the global community, receiving congratulations from both María Fernanda Espinosa Garces, president of United Nations General Assembly, and Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Fitsum Arega succinctly tweeted the importance of Sahle-Work’s presidency: “A career diplomat & senior official at the UN, she brings the right competence & experience to the office, … 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 normalises women as decision-makers in public life.” Metasebia Shewaye Yilma, President of the Ethiopian women’s business group (AWiB) echoed this to NPR, noting that women are finally feeling like they are being represented in their country.
Ethiopia has taken a tremendous step in appointing someone with peace at the forefront of her thoughts. It is already providing inspiration for the next generation of women and for other countries to follow suit, as just two days after the new Ethiopian Cabinet was appointed, Rwanda announced its own gender-balanced cabinet. Sahle-Work clearly will be doing everything in her power to work towards peacefully resolving the conflicts within her country and recognizes the importance of the connection between women and peaceful resolution. Upon her inauguration, she stated that “The absence of peace victimises firstly women, so during my tenure I will emphasise women’s roles in ensuring peace and the dividends of peace for women.” This sentiment echoes the work of the late Wangari Maathai, who highlighted the connections of feminism, peace-building, and environmentalism.
In addition to her new position as president, Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed as special representative to the African Union and head of the UN Office to the African Union in June of this year. She is also a very experienced diplomat, previously serving as Ethiopia’s ambassador to several countries including France, Senegal, and Djibouti and as the director-general of the UN office in Nairobi, Kenya. This could be the beginning of a new era in Ethiopia, with Sahle-Work working alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a leader who according to CNN has honored an agreement that put an end to the 20-year border war with Eritrea and has been freeing many jailed journalists and political prisoners arrested by the former administrations. Ethiopia has previously been known for its extremely large gender gap, particularly in health and literacy levels, meaning that this turnaround is incredible and will likely lead to many reforms in the country that will give women and girls equal opportunity to their male counterparts.
In what many people are calling a great leap for the country, Sahle-Work Zewde’s appointment as President of Ethiopia holds a great deal in its symbolism alone. Not only is it incredibly important to promote women in positions of power, but to have someone so peacefully minded and committed to diplomacy provides the rest of the world with a standard to obtain. Just as Rwanda followed suit in appointing a gender-balanced cabinet, hopefully this will start a movement to prioritize peace and productive dialogue, and recognize that women can often be key to making that happen.