Two Positions to Watch in 2016

I remember attending a pan-African women’s conference in 2013 convened by the African Union Commission Chairperson, Dr. Dlamini Zuma, where she boldly stated, “we will have enough women leaders when we no more have to count them.” The large hall echoed with the applause and cheers of hundreds of women from all over the continent. Her statement then stayed with me for the last three years as it embodied a truth that I have grappled with for a very long time; women in key leadership roles are still a rarity in our modern world and institutions, that hearing of one traverse the plains of a normatively and historically male domain, always stirs a novel excitement.

I was taken by this wave of excitement in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first African female President of her country, Liberia. Closer to home, Amsale Gualu became the first female airline captain in the history of Ethiopian Airlines in 2010. The continental victory of a female head of state was once again met in 2012 when Joyce Banda became the President of Malawi. Dr. Dlamini Zuma herself, assumed the role of Chairperson of the African Union Commission in October of 2012 – the first woman at the helm of the African Union and its predecessor –the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Later in the same year, I learned of the first African female bishop that had risen to religious leadership in a very conservative continental culture. Ellinah Wamukoya was consecrated as bishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, with a followership base of more than 45million across the Southern Africa region. 2012 it seemed was a year of many firsts for women in leadership in Africa.

Outside of Africa, another exciting moment came when in 2011 Christine Lagarde became the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund – a powerful organization that is marred by controversy for the effect it has on developing states. Nevertheless, money is often power in the global order and Lagarde is at the helm of its leadership, re-elected for a second term. In 2011, Dilma Rouseff became the first female President of Brazil – a country comprising the emerging power bloc commonly referred to as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Since the 1970s to the present day, and in our modern system of governance, there have been around 30 female heads of state of government or Presidents worldwide. This number does not include those who took up Prime Ministerial status with a siting President. So it’s 2016 and still I am counting. Therefore, my enthusiasm for what 2016 holds in the realm of women in political leadership is not surprising. Two globally high-level positions are for the taking by competent women leaders – the President of the United States and Secretary General of the United Nations. If Hilary Clinton takes the democratic nomination and wins the election in November 2016, she becomes the first head of state of one of the most powerful nations that dominates the politics and economics of much of our modern world. Similarly, the United Nations, as one of the most powerful intergovernmental institutions of our modern world, has four female candidates in the pipeline, nominated by their respective countries:

  • Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark
  • UNESCO Head Irina Bokova from Bulgaria
  • Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, and;
  • Former Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman

Sitting in our growing metropolis Addis Ababa, we may wonder why their ascent would have any bearing on our lives. Yet I argue that the election of women into these key positions has many direct and indirect consequences for Ethiopian women, of course depending on the political leanings of the elected. For example, in 2009, Ethiopia was selected by the Obama administration to comprise eight focus countries for the Global Health Initiative, which aimed to invest $63 billion over a period of six years to help strengthen the health system of selected countries, with a particular focus on women and girls. This meant the initiative extended funding to family planning, reproductive and sexual health programs in Ethiopia, which had been limited to HIV/AIDS programming by his predecessor George W. Bush, given his conservative republican leaning. What I’m trying to get at here is no matter how far we may think we are from the political charades that happen elsewhere, they very much have an impact on us as Ethiopian women.

That Hilary Clinton’s campaign is geared to highlight issues of gender inequality in the US is testament to a candidate who would make addressing those issues a priority of her administration. A week ago, she promised her supports that should she win the race, half her cabinet would be composed of women. Her campaign has indicated the possibility that she may choose a female running mate for the elections. If the democrats win, it would not only be a historical or rather ‘herstorical’ moment for the US, but for the world. Imagine a female President and Vice-President of one of the most powerful nations in the world supported by a 50-50 cabinet. Yes, that would not only be transformation in politics but also popular culture that the US has a stronghold on. 

The same could be said for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. It is expected that Ban Ki Moon’s replacement will be identified in September 2016, when the UN General Assembly gathers for its annual meeting. With responsibilities in addressing peace, security and international development issues, a woman top official for the first time in the history of the United Nations is long overdue.

So while we keep abreast of the two top positions this year in which highly powerful women are contenders, in our neck of the woods we have the opportunity to ask our female parliamentarians (who are now at 38.8%) what their transformative agenda is for women and girls in Ethiopia. Make sure you join the conversation on May 26th at AWiB’s 5th year anniversary Forum where a few of our female parliamentarians will share on how women parliamentarians in Ethiopia fare in terms of participation and engagement; what they have accomplished for the wellbeing of other women in the country and their lessons learnt.


Billene also blogs at