Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
The appointment of women to 50% of ministerial positions by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on October 2018 was welcomed and considered as a challenge to Ethiopia’s long-held tradition of patriarchal culture. The country’s president, speaker for the House of Federation, deputy speaker for the House of Representatives, Chief Justice, Chief Prosecutor, Chair of National Election Board, Ministers for Defense, Higher Education, Women and Youth Affairs, including the Minister for Peace, and the Chief Executive Officer for Ethiopian Telecom were all women.
Despite recent improvements there is a long way for Ethiopia to go to meet gender equality as illustrated in Goal Five of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. It is far from the target of eliminating child marriage in totality by 2030. Lifetime prevalence of sexual partner violence reported by women (aged 15 to 49 years) in a WHO multi-country study ranged from 6% in Japan (the lowest) to 59% in Ethiopia (the highest). The rate of under-age marriage (under 18 years of age) among women of 20–24 years old until last year was 60%. Approximately 26% of females aged 15–49 years responded that they have experienced physical or sexual violence according to the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) in 2016.
Though reduced to 55/1000 and 43/1000 from 123/1000 and 77/1000 of under-fives’ mortality and infant mortality rates consecutively, Ethiopia still has one of the highest rates of both under-fives’ and infant mortality, and access to and the quality of maternal and neonatal health interventions are still limited.
Enthusiasm for women’s appointment to high office was driven by the need for louder voices on women’s issues. Soon after, a social movement advocating for the empowerment of women dubbed “Jegnit”, or heroine, was launched in November 2018.
Unfortunately, after eighteen months of women in high level positions, Ethiopian women continue to yearn for louder voices on their behalf and Abiyi’s promotion of women seems to be form and not substance.
After a brief respite at the coming of PM Abiy Ahmed, the havoc that forced PM Hailemariam continues unabated. Violence is increasingly decentralized as a result of the armed race by the regional states. Most parts of Ethiopia are under a state of emergency in the name of command posts. Government security forces are in constant clashes with local non-state security violent actors. Ethiopia saw an unprecedented level of high-level political assassinations. The Chief Engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Army along with a senior army general; and, the President of the Amhara Regional Administration along with three other senior members of his administration were killed after the ascent of Abiy to power. This does not include a longer list of middle-level officials killed in the regions. The expanding lawlessness has affecting the security of women and children.
Kidnapping children for ransom is increasingly worrying where at times it costs the lives of kidnapped children. On December 4, 2019, an unknown group of people blocked a bus and kidnapped students on board who were leaving for home from Dembi Dolo University in western Ethiopia. On January 11, 2020, the government, without being explicit on the identity of the kidnappers, claimed to have freed 21 of the kidnapped, but none of those freed were either named or appeared in public. The families of the kidnapped girls continue to grieve in pain and the information provided by the press secretary seems false. The most recent Amnesty International report indicates the magnitude of the pain women and children are facing in these crisis situations.
The health, economic, and security impacts of Covid-19 have also worsened the situation of women and children. The gains made seem to be sent into reverse and girls locked-out of school by the pandemic are being increasingly exposed to early marriage and sexual violence by rogue relatives. The Addis Ababa city administration bureau for women’s affairs indicated that there were over 150 girls reported raped in the last three months out of which 27 are in shelters in need of medical care. The Tigray Regional administration similarly indicated the increase of similar crimes of sexual violence.
Mobility in conflict zones is restricted and pregnant women’s access to emergency medical service is limited. Amnesty’s most recent report indicates the prevalence of using rape as an instrument of war. Ethiopia does not yet have a National Action Plan for the implementation of the UNSC Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. The postponement of polls has also brought new threats to the country. The PM is heard speaking that any resistance to his rule despite the expiry of its term in September will be met by force threatening escalated suffering of women and children.
The overall situation of women is going from bad to worse; but neither the Jegnit initiative nor any of the women officials in high level positions are publicly heard voicing against it.
Should the voices of women officials against the insecurity of women be contingent on risk to their political positions? Should they lose their husbands to violence, lose children and daughters to kidnapping? Be the ones deprived of access due to emergency medical assistance due to violence? Be victims of sexual violence so that they speak to power on behalf of women and children? We only hear of the “Jegnit” initiative from intermittent media interventions of its founder and/or scant mention of its name by ministers in public events.
Does this tell us that electing women does not make any difference to women’s rights? Or that the most recently appointed women are either powerless ornaments, or else have no interest in promoting the rights and welfare of women and girls? The coming few weeks and months will help us answer this question either way.
The Oromo Liberation Army also called Shenae, an urban Oromo armed group named Aba torbe, armed youth vigilant groups named Fano and Queerroo, and militias affiliated to the Kimant Committee are a few of those armed groups.