Ethiopia: March 8 and Ethiopian Women

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year to laud the previous generations’ achievements in gender equality and make a call on the international community to do better for women.

At a time of questionable labour laws and growing women’s suffrage movements, factions of women started to band together and talk about oppression. Unrest was growing, and in 1908, 15,000 women took to the streets of New York to demand better hours, increased pay and voting rights.

The United States was the first country to hold a National Woman’s Day on February 28th, 1909 and its roots were campaigning for shorter work hours, better pay and voting rights.

March 8th was officially proclaimed International Women’s Day in 1913. Following this more countries joined the cause, including Russia and the United Kingdom. The United Nations officially joined the party in 1975 by recognizing the day for the first time.

Two years later, the UN General Assembly formally adopted the day for its Member States.

Today, we mark March 8 to celebrating women and acknowledging the fact that no country in the world has achieved gender equality yet. Everyday, we witness the violations of women’s rights, discrimination based on gender and lack of women’s representation in the administrative ladder..

A glimpse of Ethiopian women history

Ethiopian women have active participation in all aspects of their communities over ages. Due to the discriminatory political, economic and social rules and regulations during the previous regimes, they were barred from enjoying the fruits of their labour.

It is believed women consist half of the population and without their equal engagement and treatment in all aspects of life; the country’s vision of becoming a middle-income economy cannot be attained.

Too often, systems are not designed that allow women to succeed. Gender inequality is perpetuated by both formal and informal systems, structures and attitudes.

The inferior status of women in Ethiopian society has evidently been witnessed for ages. The status of a peasant woman was not better from a slave. In the wealthier families, where domestic drudgery is handled by servants, she must still be passive or show a reserved nonentity.

Women are beaten as a matter of course for mistakes in their work or apparent flirtations with other men. The wrong adage also goes “Women and pack animals need a prodding by a stick.”

Before the 1974 Revolution, women’s organized activities were run by non -governmental bodies such as Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Association, the Ethiopian Officer’s Wives Association and the Ethiopian Female Students’ Association.

Those traditional organizations were in response to calls from leaders to assist in the war effort. In the Adwa campaign as well as the Italian occupation in 1935, women assisted as cooks, nurses, even soldiers. The leaders of these associations were mostly women from the royal families.

Despite their low representation, women played active role in the politically charged atmosphere of the early 70’s university students movement. Among them Martha Mebratu and Tadelech Haile-Michael were mentioned to have active participation in the male dominated anti-establishment activities.

University Women’s Club was also formed aiming at improving the living conditions of women at the then Haile-Selassie I University College.

After the 1974 revolution, the military government set up Revolutionary Ethiopia Women’s Association (REWA), in Amharic, AESEMA.

Working from the deplorable and nearly non-existent women’s rights platform, REWA had monumental challenges to overcome.

REWA had registered success in creating awareness of women’s rights among its members and being a contributing factor for the then government to commemorate the International Women’s Day for the first time in the country’s history.

REWA had a national active membership of five million women and it was highly structured and organized.

Despite the stated achievements, REWA was too close to the Derg and had a little impact to influence government’s policies or help women benefit from development programs. Many claimed that its establishment helped, in fact, the consolidation of Derg’s power.

During the civil war, Ethiopian women made a unique contribution both as fighters and as civilian supporters to challenging and ousting the brutal and incompetent regime of the military junta.

Ethiopian women in the Post-1991 period

Soon after the demise of the Derg regime, a Transitional Government of Ethiopia whose principles set out in a charter was formed. The charter had given priority for women’s rights and paved way for them to have the benefits of their labour on equal basis with men.

Ethiopia’s first elected government attached due emphasis for women’s rights, clearly stipulated in the 1995’s Constitution. The preamble of the Constitution stated that people of Ethiopia have a vision to build nation where women have equal right with men.

The government’s commitment for women’s rights was further demonstrated by an issued article solely dealt with women’s rights. The country’s first women policy was issued in that period.

Article 35 of the FDRE 1995 Constitution entitled women equal status with men in political, social and economic life as well as in public and private institutions. It also prohibits customs and practices that oppress women as well as protecting them from harmful practices.

The government also issued affirmative actions to women aiming at mending their age long history of inequality and enable them to compete and participate on the basis of equality with men.

All government policies and plans have been designed in a way to ensure women’s participation in every socio-economic activity and maximize their benefits. Women are also entitled to equal status with men to acquire, administer and control use and transfer of property.

Ensuring gender parity in workplaces is one of the key priorities of the Ethiopian government and it has been executing various undertakings in this regard. The Ethiopian Airlines, the national flag carrier, is among the entities that have significantly increased women’s participation in all areas.

Ethiopian dispatched its first-ever flight operated by an all-female crew in January 2016. By sending off an all-women crew flight to Bangkok, Thailand, the airline promoted women’s empowerment and encouraged fellow Ethiopian girls pursue aviation careers.

It was the first time in the airliner’s history that an all-women crew (they were 11) operates the flight both on the ground and in the sky. Besides encouraging young girls to pursue their dreams, the flight also said to be a demonstration for Ethiopia’s success in minimizing gender parity in workplaces.

In the political front, women’s participation has shown a remarkable progress over the years and in the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the highest political organ of the country, they consist 38.9 per cent of total seats.

While the deputy speaker of the House is a female, one third of standing committees are also chaired by women. The House has women’s caucus aiming at increasing the number of women in leadership positions and enhance their benefits and participation in various fields.

A growing number of women’s participation at high-level decision-making positions is highly manifested. And currently the country has two ministers and over a dozen state ministers.

Strong women’s involvement was also witnessed in previous national elections and

it is believed those elections did try to assert women’s equality with men in determining the fate of the country.

The elections gave women electorate an opportunity to elect political parties that ensure their benefit and equal participation in nation building.

While Ministry of Women Affairs was formed to institutionalize efforts to protect women’s interest, women policy, women development and change package and various pro-women declarations were also being issued and ratified by the current government.

Strong women associations and federation were set at various levels across the country to protect the rights and benefits of member women.

Due to government’s consolidated gender mainstreaming efforts, progress has also been attained in increasing gender parity in public posts.

Ensuring women’s active participation and benefit in the economy is among pillars of the first and second Growth and Transformation Plans (GTP One and Two) and significant works have been done for women’s economic empowerment.

While women have been entitled certain privileges in condominium houses draws, access to loans and entrepreneurship trainings and others, a significant number of them were being employed in micro and small enterprises to acquire assets.

The country has made big leaps in improving women’s livelihoods and increasing their access to education, health and other social services. 38,000 women health extension workers have been trained in recent years helping the country register success in reducing mothers’ and children death.

Consolidated efforts are also under way to relive women from domestic drudgery and protecting them from physical and psychological assaults as well as harmful practices.

The road ahead

While keeping in mind the above facts; however, there is a long way to go in creating significant changes in the livelihoods of women and enable them to play equal role with men in nation building.

Due attention need be given to rural women, the most vulnerable group in the society, regarding access to basic social services and means of lessening their workload. Attention should also be given to improving the health and nutrition of mothers and improving their education.

The government has to keep on making rigorous efforts to improve the level of women’s income and eliminating prejudices and customary practices that are based on male supremacy.

Enabling women to hold high level public offices and strengthening women’s association must be top agendas of the incumbent.

Above all, women themselves should fight for their rights and better future and transformation of the country. Such moves would support the vision of our Constitution set to ensure gender equality comes true.

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