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Women trained in Demo Finland and NEWA Ethiopia's project in 2022. Photo: NEWA Ethiopia

Why is it important to support women politicians in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is among the top 30 countries in the world in terms of the number of women parliamentarians. In 2023, women accounted for an average of 26.5% of the world’s parliaments, but in Ethiopia the proportion of women is about 41%: 195 of the 470 members of the Ethiopian Parliament, House of People’s Representatives (HoPR), are women. There are actually 547 seats in the HoPR, but only 470 were occupied in the general election 2021, because election could not be conducted in Tigray and parts of Oromia, Afar and Somali due to conflicts in these regions. 

Ethiopia’s first national recommendation on the status of women from 1993 and the Constitution of 1995 call for gender equality and the dismantling of obstacles to equality. President Sahle-Work Zewde is a woman. However, Demo Finland continues the co-operation started in 2019 to train elected female MPs, female members of political parties and women with disabilities in issues related to the status of women, political participation and political leadership. Why on earth? Would things not seem to be fairly equal in Ethiopia?

There are hardly any women in political party leadership positions.

Ethiopia’s political party and election legislation does not set gender quotas for party activities or electoral practices. In 2021, the leading political party, the Prosperity Party (PP), set a quota according to which 30% of the party’s leading positions and parliamentary seats must be held by women. Of the MPs, 454 represent the PP, and all female MPs are from the ruling party. The other political parties’ female candidates were not selected in the last general elections in 2021. There are also hardly any women in party leadership positions. 

Among international rankings in various indices measuring gender equality, one could mention the Global Gender Gap, which gives Ethiopia a figure of 0.71. The figure is made up of several different factors and ranks countries on a scale from 0 (no inequality) to 1 (maximum possible inequality). There has been a lot of deterioration since 2008, when the figure was 0.59. Ethiopia ranks 75th out of 146 countries monitored. In 2021, the ranking was 97th and in 2022 74th. The jump between 2021 and 2022 was due to the large number of female parliamentarians after the 2021 election, as well as a female president who took office in 2018. However, although the president is the Head of State, the role of the president is ceremonial. The government has the executive role, and the head of the government is the prime minister.  

There are many complex obstacles to political participation of women 

Ethiopia traditionally has a very patriarchal culture that does not support women’s political participation. It is typical for a woman to get involved in politics with the permission of her family or husband. That is, political activity takes place through the consent and support of a man. Unless this permission is released, a political career will either not be possible or will be very difficult due to lack of support or open opposition. 

Women are seen in Ethiopia as a homogeneous group. However, there are many intersectional factors in Ethiopian culture, which mean that women in seemingly the same position have very different opportunities to participate in public decision-making and the exercise of power due to their different backgrounds. Such interacting factors include age, language, ethnicity, region of origin or residence, religion, marital status and education. The correlation, or lack thereof, puts equally highly educated women, for example, in an unequal position in society.  

Political parties play a key role in maintaining or dismantling practices that hinder the political participation of women 

The internal operating cultures and practices of political parties operate according to these same patriarchal models. Women who do not participate in the activities of the main party are easily excluded. They may not benefit from available financial support targeted for all political party members. In general, they also do not advance in the hierarchy within the party in the same way as men. 

The trainings of the project, implemented by Demo Finland and NEWA Ethiopia aimed at increasing women’s political participation, bring together women and men active in politics. The workshops highlight all these different obstacles to political activity that women face and seek solutions together. The training strengthens women’s skills in politics: networking, leadership skills and communication, as well as working in political party structures so that women are able to take initiatives and drive them independently. Individual political parties are encouraged and supported to make their party’s documents and practices more inclusive. 

What unites women with disabilities is that, as a rule, the human rights of persons with disabilities are not realised. Participation in politics is hindered not only by the same considerations as other women, but also by attitudes according to which persons with disabilities are not capable of working as political actors and decision-makers at all. For this reason, one part of Demo Finland’s project focuses on dismantling barriers to political activity of women with disabilities in political parties and training women with disabilities in political influence at the local level. 

Towards meaningful political participation of women 

During its lifetime from 2019 to 2023, the project has achieved some significant results, all of which will play a role in addressing the above-mentioned problems. Women politicians from two political parties independently began training other female politicians on the topics covered in the project’s courses. At the same time, things have also happened in political parties and governance: In 2023, one regional party recruited eight women to its Central Committee and three women to its Executive Committee. Previously, there were no women on these committees. Six political parties have reviewed their party structures and practices from the perspective of women’s participation and made changes to facilitate participation. Last year, they started setting up their own women’s organisations as part of their structures. The Ethiopian Parliament and the regional governments of Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz have developed checklists to help them monitor changes in women’s political participation. 

In autumn 2023, The Political Parties Joint Council and the Women’s Group in Parliament suggested to NEWA Ethiopia that they jointly assemble a political dialogue network of parliamentary women’s wing, women’s wings of the political parties, and concerned non-governmental organisations to facilitate women’s political participation. The network has also aroused wide interest in government bodies, and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Affairs, as well as many male parliamentarians, for example, want to participate in the network’s activities.

At the same time as individual persons with disabilities became politically active, politicians and parliamentary actors also woke up to work to promote the political participation of persons with disabilities.

In Ethiopia, there is a tradition of so-called coffee table discussions, where local people discuss current issues in their own communities. Already in the early stages of the project, the women with disabilities who participated in the project’s trainings, took over these discussions and began to use them independently for advocacy work. Last year, as a result, 21 persons with disabilities took up political activities locally in youth organisations, women’s organisations of political parties, women’s associations and peace associations.  

At the same time as individual persons with disabilities became politically active, politicians and parliamentary actors also woke up to work to promote the political participation of persons with disabilities. Key actors from Parliament and Addis Ababa City Council, who participated in the project’s trainings and workshops, networked to promote the political participation of persons with disabilities already in 2021. In addition, last year, the Political Parties Joint Council established a disability working group to promote the facilitation of political participation of people with disabilities. 

After five years of co-operation, we at Demo Finland and NEWA Ethiopia believe that the project has been and still is necessary. In addition, we have found that the results achieved show that continuous monitoring of the results and further planning based on it work well. It has been inspiring to be involved in processes that have facilitated women’s political participation despite the challenging environment.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.

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