With the Rise of Ethiopia, where does Feminism Stand?

The British royal wedding that captured the imagination of all of pop culture recalls to mind another particularly elegant recent royal ceremony, this time one that is wholly African. In September 2017, Prince Yoel of Ethiopia — the great-grandson of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia— married Ariana Austin, of Guyanese and African-American descent. “Nearly a decade ago a boy and a girl met on the dance floor in Washington DC,” the couple says on their wedding site. “Old world aristocracy met New world charm.” Ethiopia has indeed come a long way.

It has been 20 years since the disastrous thirteen month Ethiopia-Eritrea war, which devastated the region. And there were no “winners” among the former Horn of Africa allies. The desolate plains of Badime, an ill-defined border at best, were laid waste by the two countries, and almost entirely for naught. “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, former comrades-in-arms who fought side by side and defeated one of Africa's largest and best-trained armies, morphed into absolutists,” explains Al Jazeera. “Belligerent narratives swiftly became dominant, causing a structural breakdown of communications between the two countries.” As many as one hundred thousand Africans died and one million were displaced between May 1998 and June 2000. Ethiopia spent $3 billion on the war.

Twenty years later, Ethiopia is on an upwards trajectory. It is Africa’s fastest-growing economy, second most populated country and projected to grow 8.5% this year. It has averaged 10% growth per year during the last decade, according to a new IMF DataMapper. “The infrastructure is remarkably good by regional standards, and the Ethiopian government is known for conducting a relatively successful industrial policy,” according to a new, laudatory article in Bloomberg. “The state-owned Ethiopian Airlines is run as a responsible business, it is becoming a major air power, and standards of service are high.” Ethiopian Airlines, often simply referred to as Ethiopian, was launched in 1945. It is not only the oldest but the largest, fastest growing, and most profitable airline in Africa. Ethiopian just won the Best Customer Service Airline at the 2018 edition at the West African Business Award.

But what about feminism in Ethiopia? Watchdog organizations are all the rage in Ethiopia, especially, though not exclusive to those with women-centered leanings. Since 1991 "watchdog" organizations like the The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) and the Network of Ethiopian Women's Associations have sprung up and grown in power. In the last two years the Setasweet organization has garnered international attention. Just last month, Keria Ibrahim was elected Speaker of the Ethiopian House of Federation (HoF). She was elected unanimously and is the second woman to hold this title in Ethiopian government. Still, there is a way to go to parity between men and women in Ethiopia. "Some women such as Dr. Eleni Zewde Gebre-Medhin, former CEO of the very successful ECX in Ethiopia, succeed very easily because they also have the full support and encouragement of their family, the facilities, the ideal environment etc,” writes Fitsum Getachew in The Ethiopian Herald. “But can you imagine a girl in the remote rural areas reaching all the levels of success that she may dream looking at these very successful women in the various professions?”

Dr. Eleni Zewde Gebre-Medhin, the first CEO of The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange is one of the most famous titans of industry in the country. The ECX, launched in April 2008, is, one decade later, still revolutionizing Ethiopia’s tradition-bound agriculture industry. “A market is above all a connection between humans, an exchange of goods and money that links two sides,” Dr. Eleni Zewde Gebre-Medhin writes in Nazret.com. “The market is neutral as to who is on either side, it is the connection that counts. I have always found traders to be the most pragmatic people in the world. Let us too live by this market principle: we are far richer and far stronger if we build on our connectivity to each other in meaningful ways, and that much weaker if we seek isolation and succumb to narrow divisiveness. Let us be like the market. I believe it is our only hope.” It is Dr. Gebre-Medhin’s hope that the neutrality of the market will someday eliminate the distance, the inequalities between men and women in this ancient civilization.

Ethiopia’s rise is not just an economic phenomenon, and to be sustained it will need to involve a greater integration of men and women. The government’s ruling coalition, Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is suggesting that they are open to multiparty elections, which is a good beginning to greater integration between the sexes and diverse governmental coalitions that are at present voiceless. "The return of exiled opposition group Oromo Democratic Front (ODF), and a desire by other exiled groups to return to Ethiopia to conduct legal and peaceful political activities is positive for the country," Abebe Aynete, senior researcher at Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies (EFRSS), an Addis Ababa-based think tank, told Xinhua.

Finally, despite the dark political times across the globe, Ethiopia is rising. As nations east and west become more and more illiberal, Ethiopia, at least on paper, is aiming at greater stability, democratic values and a strengthening of human rights, that will almost certainly be good for women, gays, and the transgendered, who are presently underrepresented.