Leading by Example: women increasingly claiming their space in an ever changing Ethiopia


Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most populous countries, with considerable ethnic and religious diversity, but also a home for many of the worlds’ poorest. Although the country is experiencing substantial development, not least economically with an average of 10% GPD growth rate in the past 10 years according to World Bank Data, it is still not fully reflected in human rights. Gender equality is one of the areas that keeps lagging behind. The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 ranks Ethiopia 117 out of 149 countries in terms of the magnitude and scope of gender disparities. Women and girls are still experiencing significant disadvantages in life.

While progress towards gender equality has been slow in Ethiopia, recent events however seem to have turned the tables in the country. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, he restructured the parliament cabinet in which 50 % of the ministerial seats was reserved to women, followed by appointing the first female President in Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde. Eldad Girma, working as the Inclusive Business Officer in the Innovation Against Poverty (IAP) Challenge Fund at the SNV country office in Ethiopia, foresees a transformative effect from the latest developments.

“Ethiopia is at a turning point when it comes to gender equality. The new leadership has more than just a paper-based policy framework, they have showed real commitment to make a change.”- Eldad Girma.

When Eldad grew up, it was quite uncommon to study her field as a women. She started studying economics, and was favored by a new quota implemented by the government, intended to promote more women to study subjects otherwise dominated by male students. This reflects one of the initiatives implemented in an attempt to reduce gender discrimination, even before the incumbent government. University allocation was solely based on performance before this, and girls often ended up in vocational programs, which Eldad suggests was based on traditional assumed roles of women in society. Despite the affirmative action from the government, Eldad did not represent the majority. Social and financial support from her family was a crucial factor that allowed her to focus on her own aspirations.

“I was maybe the 1% that joined university, because I have a good family support system. They invest in me, and take care of my needs so that I can focus on pursuing my own dreams. But this is not the norm in Ethiopia.”– Eldad Girma.

Witnessing deprivation in the surroundings of Addis Ababa sparked Eldad’s interest to work with development. However, she was struggling to find the right ways of making an impact. While working with community development programs, she found herself concerned whether the efforts were efficient enough to achieve maximum impact. This process of thinking eventually drove Eldad into the field of inclusive business investments, and consequently her position at SNV. She was curious to explore how partnership with the private sector could leverage development.

 “I believe businesses are more efficient in terms of resource utilization. So I asked myself, how can we learn, and leverage from that, to bring in the sustainable and maximum impact we want?”- Eldad Girma.

Private companies have increasingly focused their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts on creating opportunities for women and girls. Statistics suggest that investing in both men and women leads to economic prosperity and increased welfare, as spending and investment increases. Gender inclusion has also proved to benefit the financial, innovative and internal aspects of a business, because of the increased diversity. One of the IAP fund’s crosscutting focus area is gender inclusion. Since Eldad is IAP’s Inclusive Business Officer in Ethiopia, she plays a crucial role in the implementation of this. Eldad recognizes that it is not always as easy to translate the theoretical aspects of gender inclusion into practice. Given the risk profile of emerging markets, companies generally have the tendency to service the easily accessible costumers in the market, as they seldom have enough cash flow to invest in long term market development. The market in Ethiopia is largely accessed by men, hence it becomes natural for them to target their products to this group.

“80 % of the population in the potential market you have is in rural Ethiopia, and most of the mobile people that you can easily access are the men in the community, not the women. So all their [the companies] marketing, and interaction with the market is developed having the male customers in mind.”- Eldad Girma.

Despite the challenges, Eldad further stresses the opportunity for the IAP fund to help companies to think beyond the short term, and instead tap into the larger potential of growth and sustainability.

“IAP is well positioned to really help the business community stretch a bit further, to develop their business and to become a broader-oriented business. With the support and funding from IAP, they can start talking about women as a potential client base. They can also consider women entrepreneurs in their value chain e.g. as distributors or suppliers. This is a resource and outlook that they have sometimes never looked at before.” – Eldad Girma.

Women in Ethiopia are increasingly taking the same path as Eldad, in which their choices are based on interests rather than traditional values. Research shows that as women gain more opportunities for employment in occupations where they are traditionally underrepresented, their exposure to sexual harassment and abuse increases. According to Eldad, it is more difficult to gain credit and respect as a woman in the workplace than her male counterparts. In her first employment, she had to reside in remote areas of the country to develop programs based on the needs of the communities. During this time, she experienced a lot of prejudices from other male team members based on her gender. They verbally demonstrated their doubts of her ability to conduct her work. Eldad’s best tactic was to ignore those kind of comments, to continue to focus on her own work, claim her space, and to avoid wasting time on their negative energy.

“Verbal confrontation is not always the best approach when people try to challenge your capacity. Until you gain their respect, the first assumption of women always persists. I am not proving myself for the sake of the people not believing in me, I am doing it for myself, because this is my job.”- Eldad Girma.

Similar to the Government’s responsibility to act on gender disparities, Eldad further urge companies and organizations to deal with harassments within the work place. Subtle harassments could be tackled through internal discussions, while bold comments are cause for firm responses from management. Some women experience that they do not have a support system when those types of situations occur, which may result in women avoiding working in certain sectors.

“In NGOs, we are educated to some extent to not verbalize bold comments or harassments like that to others. However, I am sure other women do experience verbal discrimination, and even physical, I mean, it is very common in Ethiopia. The way people deal with it, can be very different. Especially if you grew up in a society where your own views about your role and your capacities are questioned. You might have some doubt about your capacities, and this kind of environments might impact the way you act on it.”- Eldad Girma.

The changes happening in Ethiopia are not only visible within the political elite. People are debating gender issues in all corners of the country. Eldad sees a potential in the current streams of development, specifically the domestic character of it. New implementation requires mental and behavioral change. Eldad fear is that people tend to be more resistant if they are being hammered in the wrong way, and that we need to allow communities to learn in the process. Although transformation takes time, people are increasingly expressing their real understanding about gender differences, and the agenda is brought to the surface.

“It is good for us to really air out. And people are now aware of how they think about gender roles.”- Eldad Girma.

Eldad remembers a time when she used to discuss with children groups in the communities about their future dreams. Nearly all boys aspired to become engineers, medical doctors, pilots and police officers, whilst the girls considered a successful life to get married and settle down. Eldad is certain that she would receive different answers today. Not only because of improvements in the legal systems, with new policies in relation to recourse ownership, family laws, and land rights, but also because young girls see women represented in different occupations, as decision makers and leaders.

“For me, this is big. I believe all this push from higher levels and changes in the legal framework, will eventually translate into something really important. With actual action being visible from the government side to bring this equality between genders.”- Eldad Girma.

Representation is however needed in both higher and lower levels. When Eldad successfully completed her studies in the department of economics, she was invited to the University administration office to pass on her experiences to other female students. With this, Eldad could set an example, and demonstrate the value of studying something out of interest rather than what is expected.