It was an otherwise routine flight between Addis Ababa and Bangkok, except this one was making history. In November, Ethiopian Airlines commissioned its first flight crewed by all women, from the cockpit right down to maintenance.
It may seem like an easily overlooked feat, but for an African country that only adopted gender equality policies 10 years ago, the historic flight was one of many notable landmarks in the path toward bridging the gender gap.
Policies in health care, land ownership, business opportunities, and combatting violence against women have firmly taken root across the country, in large part thanks to the United Nations Women program in Ethiopia. U.N. Women focuses on gender issues in priority areas that are fundamental to women’s equality. With help from nine other U.N. programs, it have been able to support 50,000 women to start new small businesses or expand existing businesses.
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Since 2005, Ethiopia has taken great strides to make women’s empowerment more of a priority. As the country began opening its doors to economic development partners, a parallel gender narrative was also developing, said Letty Chiwara, U.N. Women’s representative to Ethiopia, the African Union, and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.
“As that process of development was evolving, there has also been a huge realization that the majority of the population of Ethiopia, more than 19 million, are women,” Chiwara said. “The women were disadvantaged in terms of education, access to health, access to social services. But with all new policies since 2005, there has been a huge focus on women and policy recommendations that promote women.”
(Photo: Ethiopian Air/Facebook)
The Ethiopian constitution adopted in 1995 provides equal rights to women, but it wasn’t until 2005 when the country hit a turning point in its attitude. That’s when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued the Paris Declaration on Aid and Effectiveness, which provided principles on how aid can be most impactful.
Ethiopia “took it very seriously,” Chiwara said, in “implementing that aid effectiveness agenda in moving the country forward.” That’s when gender policy began to take shape and the positive economic growth narrative coincided with the gender narrative.
Access to land has been a particularly successful campaign. For the first time, women are now allowed to own land independently. In many African countries, land is always linked to the husband. But in Ethiopia, women are now allowed to own land outright, work on it, and use it productively to improve their family and status.
“That has been a very empowering tool for Ethiopia,” Chiwara said.
But beyond policy, Ethiopia is a model for other African countries, she said, particularly in the way it works at the community level.
“The coordination for gender equality stands out among many African countries,” Chiwara said.
Enter the women’s development army. These are so-called soldiers on the front lines working every day to better their circumstances.
“When I came to Ethiopia a few years back, I asked a deputy prime minister what that meant,” Chiwara recalled. “He said, you know, we are fighting a war of ending poverty among our people, so we thought, the women are the soldiers fighting this war…with this army, we will win this war.”
“I was touched,” she added. “I’ve seen that the women’s development army concept worked particularly with health services in rural areas. It has worked so well, it’s a model that other countries should emulate.”
The women’s development army acts as a grassroots support network in villages across the country. Take the village of Libo Kemkem in northern Ethiopia. U.N. Women worked alongside the country’s Poverty Action Network to train local governments and communities about gender-responsive budgeting. They consulted the entire village and asked women specifically what their No. 1 priority was for the government to provide at a local level.
“The women demanded water,” Chiwara said. “They said, if our local budget doesn’t prioritize water, we will not approve this budget.”
Prior to the training, their budget committee was only made up of men. Women are now given full representation.
“The work we do does make a difference in the lives of women,” Chiwara said. “We believe seriously in the need to change the lives of women rather than talk policy. We need to get down to the community level.”
The women’s development army is especially active when it comes to health services. It has a support system in place for women readying to give birth, for example.
“If a woman is ready to give birth and doesn’t have transport, the whole community comes around to ensure the woman is taken to the nearest health center and delivers with support of health professionals,” Chiwara said, adding that this initiative has significantly reduced maternal and newborn mortality rates in the country.
But the women’s development army is also being used for conservation issues and the fight against violence. Yelfigne Abegaz, the Ethiopian program coordinator for U.N. Women, said one of the group’s greatest accomplishments is helping to turn attitudes about violence against women by working closely with communities in terms of prevention, protection, service, and care.
“We’re working with communities to change attitudes, that’s one of the bottlenecks,” she said. “We have these really beautiful policies, but due to attitudes, we haven’t gone to the level where we want to be.”
Together with government agencies, U.N. Women has created several comprehensive safe houses for victims of abuse. They offer skills training, self-defense training, health services, legal aid, and assistance with court proceedings.
“They’re really doing a great job to mobilize the community about conservation and mitigation climate effects, especially in reforestation programs and building infrastructure in rural centers,” Abegaz said. “Any violence against women is immediately reported through this group and has contributed when it comes to reduction.”
According to the U.N.’s Gender Development Index, Ethiopia falls at about 140 out of 180 countries. That may seem low, but Chiwara said the baseline context has to be kept in mind.
“You have to see it in the context of where we started and the baseline,” she said. “When people look at the global index, we’re very low. But it’s only been in the last five or 10 years that Ethiopia began addressing gender gap issues.”
The proof is in the numbers; just take a look at women in leadership roles and politics, Chiwara said. In 2005, the Ethiopian parliament was only 21 percent women. In 2015, the house of representatives is now 38 percent women.
“We’ve done amazingly, it’s a huge movement,” she said.
But there’s still work to be done. In a preliminary gender profile of Ethiopia, a report intended to measure progress and highlight needs, U.N. Women praised the policies set in place by the country but noted severe discrepancies in implementation, largely owing to lack of funding.
“The missing link is the funding,” Chiwara said. “We’re working on gender-responsive budgeting, we haven’t seen the prioritizations of some of the priorities for women in terms of budget allocations. Even with our development partners, in terms of supporting work we’re doing as U.N. Women, the financial envelope is minimal all the time.”
She continued, “We still want to continue pushing that much more, and pushing for gender equality so we can achieve the vision of women’s empowerment in Ethiopia.”