Skip to main site content.
Human rights lawyer and now head of the Ethiopian Supreme Court, Meaza Ashenafi, at the Berlinale International Film Festival  in Germany in 2014.
Human rights lawyer and now head of the Ethiopian Supreme Court, Meaza Ashenafi, at the Berlinale International Film Festival in Germany in 2014.

Seismic shift

‘Less corrupt than men,’ Ethiopian women take the reins of power like never before

By WITW Staff on November 26, 2018

When Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed assigned half his ministerial posts to women in October, he not only set an example to his traditionally patriarchal nation, but to the world. But that wasn’t the end of the seismic shift initiated by the 42-year-old Abiy, with a woman also appointed to the country’s most senior judicial position, the role of press secretary to the P.M., as well as the presidency.

For context, the BBC’s Hana Zeratsyon — who has taken a closer look at these female leaders, and how the nation is responding to them — gathered some startling statistics about violations to women’s rights in the African nation, including: fewer than 20 percent of girls go to high school; more than 40 percent are married before they turn 18; and almost 50 percent have experienced violence from a partner. Nearly a quarter of women in Ethiopia hand over almost all decision-making power to their husbands.

Against this background of entrenched misogyny, Abiy’s decision to appoint human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi as head of the Supreme Court is bold and timely. Meaza is also the founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, and her successful efforts to challenge the abduction of young girls for marriage was the inspiration for the Angelina Jolie-produced 2014 Hollywood film Difret.

Director Zeresenay Mehari, actress Tizita Hagere, executive producer Angelina Jolie, Meaza Ashenafi and producer Leelai Demoz attend the 2014 Variety Screening Series of ‘Difret’ on December 9, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, communications expert Billene Aster Seyoum has taken up the role of Abiy’s press secretary, and veteran U.N. official Sahle-Work Zewdw was elected to the presidency. Sahle-Work is currently Africa’s only female head of state. Under Abiy, the powerful defense portfolio went to Aisha Mohammed, while former parliamentary speaker Muferiat Kamil is heading up the newly created peace ministry, that covers law enforcement and the intelligence agencies. Both women are also Muslims from minority ethnic groups that have historically been politically marginalized. Elaborating on his reasons for making the appointments last month, Abiy asserted that women are “less corrupt than men.”

Sahle-Work Zewde (L) walks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) after being elected as Ethiopia’s first female President at the Parliament in Addis Ababa on October 25, 2018. (EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Doubters, like Mekelle University academic Mekonen Fiseha, have wondered aloud if these new appointees will fall into a cultural “yes mentality,” or stand up to Abiy if required. But that view is quickly shot down by women’s rights campaigner Rediet Kefale, who also told the BBC, “We have never seen women in power like this. It is new to our eyes. Whatever the post, it is a great move to develop women’s leadership.”

Watch the trailer for Difret below:

Read the full story at the BBC.


Ethiopia elects first woman president in country’s history

New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed makes his cabinet 50% women

Ethiopian Airlines launches historic all-female flight