Patriarchy is a reality of most of the countries in this world, even today. Putting an end to this irrational ideology, the Parliament of Ethiopia has appointed a woman as its President, for the first time in its modern history. Along with that, Sahle-Work Zewde also became the only serving female head of state in Africa.
On Thursday, the lawmakers unanimously voted for Zewde and picked her for this largely ceremonial role, during the second Special Joint Session of Ethiopia’s two houses of parliament- the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) and the House of the Federation (HoF).
Sahle-Work Zewde was born in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. She is a natural sciences graduate from the University of Montpellier, France. Prior to her appointment, the veteran diplomat served as the special representative of the United Nations’ secretary-general and the head of the UN office to the African Union.
Even before the parliament approved Zewde as the President, media reporters have been reporting that the country will get its first female president. Besides, the voting was seen as a mere formality. Moreover, several people had been sending congratulatory messages on her social media, way before the results were announced.
In a Twitter post, the female president of the United Nations General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garces said, “Congratulations, Madam President! Women do make a difference. We are proud of you!”
The chief of staff for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Fitsum Arega also wrote, “In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life.”
Sahle-Work Zewde has replaced Mulatu Teshome, the former President of Ethiopia, who served the East-African nation since October 7, 2013. Although he was expected to serve until 2019, he stepped down in unclear circumstances, amidst the political cabinet reshuffle by the Prime Minister. However, he had stated that he wanted to be part of the country’s reforms and changes.
The resignation of Teshome was accepted the parliamentary members, before proceeding to elect the 68-year-old as his replacement.
Following her swearing-in ceremony, Zewde addressed the legislators. She said, “Mulatu has shown us the way for change and hope, he has shown life continues before and after leaving power. I call on other to heed his example and be ready for change.”
She also made a passionate appeal for peace in the country. Besides, she also highlighted the plight of the women, and emphasized the importance of respecting them. She also highlighted the need to build a “society that rejects the oppression of women.”
Sahle-Work Zewde stressed the importance of unity and promised to be a voice for women.
“When there is no peace in country, mothers will be frustrated. Therefore, we need to work on peace for the sake of our mothers,” she said, adding that “the absence of peace victimizes firstly women, so during my tenure I will emphasize on women’s roles, ensuring peace and the dividends of peace for women”.
According to Ethiopia’s constitution, the president is the head of state, and is elected for six years with two-term limit, by the HPR. Although the prime minister occupies the highest seat of power, the position of president also carries vital symbolic weight and social influence.
As a president, Zewde will be serving under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took the office in April. The 41-year-old PM is currently the youngest leader of the continent, who has been taking radical initiatives to include women in leadership roles in the sweeping political and economic reforms.
In the mid of this month, Ahmed reshuffled the political cabinet and created a gender balance by assigning half the posts of a 20-people cabinet to women. Under his tutelage, Aisha Mohammed became the first female defense minister of Ethiopia. Whereas, Muferiat Kamil, leader of the newly-created Ministry of Peace, was given the responsibility of police and domestic intelligence agencies.
Sahle-Work Zewde in her speech said, “If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.”
While two reformists will be leading the nation, there could be some radical changes expected in a country where women witness various legal, economic and social constraints. As Zewde and other women are joining the male-dominated spheres like politics, the future of Africa could be seen moving towards a more liberal direction.