An extraordinary seminar – Recap

An extraordinary seminar organized by AWiB in association with UN Country Team Ethiopia to discuss on the topic why women aren’t in leadership positions took place on Friday, March 25th.  The seminar lasted for four hours and covered a broad range of insightful subject matters.  In addition to an impressive panel of experts AWiB had invited the Prime Minister, his Excellency Hailemariam Desalegn to take part in this seminar.  Due to unfortunate bureaucracy the Minister did not seem to have received his letter of invitation.  Nonetheless, the seminar divided into two discussion parts, proved to be an overall success. 

Leading the first segment was Selome Tadesse with panellists Mebrat Beyene and Tadesses Kassa.  Tewolde GebreMariam was among the guests invited to speak but he had cancelled his attendance on the last minute.   Ms Beyene, an insurgent in Tigray Peoples Liberation Front was first asked what had happened to 30% of TPLF worriers in the transition to governance and whether the political institution hijacks women’s voices. Ms Beyene narrated in detail the roles of women on the battlefield showcasing in her recap the bravery and determination of her fellow worriers.  Despite progressive methods of coping and succeeding in male dominated environments women insurgents did not have a unified front when the party came to power.  Some continued raising gender issues while others ignored them.  TPLF favoured those who turned their heads away.  An audience member later appreciated Ms Beyene’s speech honouring women worriers in TPLF and reiterated the fact that there shouldn’t be receivers and takers in situations where the currency is blood.

The next panellist, Mr Kassa received a follow up question from Selome regarding why TPLF haven’t done its dues in bringing women to leadership position.  The problem lies with the recruiting system, said TadesseKassa, leaving behind both male and female candidates more qualified than those in power.  In addition he cited the Prime Minister’s public announcement admitting that Ethiopia is lagging behind all African countries in taking actions in bringing women into leadership positions.  This answer was not satisfactory to our moderator who presented her follow up question: “So?” accompanied with a big uproar from the audience.  Accepting their failure as a problem, she says, is not one of TPLF’s characters.  Selome then invited Mr Kassa to talk about his corporation Tiret and to elaborate on the opportunities and challenges of being women’s advocate.   Tiret, a developmental corporation founded in 1995 has now 17 companies under its management.  In the past, however, the corporation has struggled to the brink of existence at which point the company evaluated its leaders to strengthen and recreate its norms.  The reformation included creating women’s union to filter and evaluate the laws the company is governed by.  These actions brought change in developing favourable conditions for women in work places.  It is also observed that women play important roles in transition periods posing as effective transformational leaders.  Currently Tiret’s leadership is 11% female and the corporation has the goal to raise this number to 45-50% in the year 2020.

Currently women in leadership positions do not fulfil their role as advocates of women’s rights because influential positions have been tailor made for men within various institutions.  In order to stay in power their voices have to sing the tunes of men. Therefore, giving men and women the same positions without first reassembling the societal structure as it is functioning at the moment is detrimental to women’s real opportunities.  Women’s advocate is a hefty title many people shy away from.  Channelling our focus to accommodate women’s particular needs in the work place, restructuring societal norms to make room for women to perform to the best of their abilities has benefited Tiret in becoming a successful corporation.  Gender issues regarding women’s right is echoed in all public platforms but if those posing the question are in truth asking and those answering are indeed responding to the questions then these dialogues should always hover in all places at all times.

The second part of the discussion focused on the way forward by bringing down barriers women face from different fronts. The panel composed of SelomeTaddesse, FrealemShebabaw, and Mr Daniel Kibret, first focused on identifying these barriers and each speaker addressed a different facet of these obstacles. BilleneSeyoum, the moderator for the second half, poses the first question to Ms Tadesse asking her to elaborate on the personal and structural barriers.  Ms Tadesse states that she has reflected upon this question for a long time and her answer remains inconclusive, drawing insight only from her experience. Women occupying influential seats should develop systemic thinking.  An office a woman holds in a particular position is a fragment of a bigger picture, which she should utilize to bring about change that ripples beyond an immediate outcome.  This chain of considerable positive influences is achieved by striking a balance between a habit of following a carefully outlined plan that minimizes unintended consequences of our actions and a certain doze of naïveté that gives us the courage to implement our biggest ideas.  Ms Tadesse also encourages the formation of a strong support system among women in frontlines creating an open and safe spaces that gives women not only the opportunity to make mistakes but also the privilege to learn from their errors. 

Regarding structural barriers, Selome has likened women’s struggle to gain legislative power to an elephant wiggling to fit in a house built for a giraffe. Men have predominantly occupied leadership positions for so long that the seats cater to that sex and regards women as unwelcomed guests.  Ms.Taddesse’s proposed solution to the elephant is to take a stand and expand the parameters of the boundary.  She remarks that it is imperative that we support those who have been pushing the wall before us.  It is a mistake to assume we’re the first to try and a more dangerous error still to think we’ll succeed in pushing it to the end.   A collective action builds upon what has already been done in addition to pulling others towards the new and upcoming tasks at hand.  Daniel Kibret later expands on the responsibilities of an enlightened individual.  A lit matchstick he says has two duties: to stay aflame and to share it’s light with others.

FrealemShibabaw spoke about how our current educational system have pruned women from the school environment from such a young age, most girls dropping out as early as 4th grade, that all of those who have the discipline and the general make up of a leader fall short of educational qualifications for influential positions later on in their lives.  An institution as malleable as an education system should be tailored to fit the type of students we have in our country as opposed to our kids bending over backwards to accommodate a structure that neither considers nor provides for their particular needs.  If most kids in a school, she says, attend classes without having breakfast, then that school is not for our kids.  Our schools should be watchers that stand accountable for each student.  We need social workers that cheer on our girls as they fight the injustice at home that prompts them to drop out. Genet Zewde who is of the belief that we must first eradicate poverty to have the power to fight equality, in her comment challenges the idea of an elaborate support system in our schools as a primary solution.  Mrs Shibabaw on the other hand emphasizes that the mask of poverty does not effectively hide gender prejudice and poor economic status should not serve as a scapegoat for all of us who see a schoolgirl outside school and do nothing about it.  Not one manifestation of gender inequality is too little to pass by without reprimand as Mr Kassa had previously illustrated in his parable of a bar tet-a-tet.  In this debate of which fight comes first, Selome weighs in with the comment to incorporate women as part of the solution.  She proposes a paradigm shift where we internalize women’s rights as a non-negotiable integral piece of our societal structure posing women’s questions as existential questions. 

Another area where our educational system has failed our girls (besides its incapacity to keep them in school long enough to equip them with qualifications for leadership positions) is its inability to include a plan designed to compensate the lack of awareness regarding gender issues present in our male-dominated households.  The difference between the educated and uneducated population of our society should not simply be the difference between the literate and illiterate.  Our curriculum should aim to cultivate a contemplative and inquisitive generation capable of building a value system that stands guard to all of society’s rights.  This value system, in-turn, will be protected by the laws drafted in the judiciary system.  The debate over rights is on going and never stops, philosophy and style of life changes with time and with it the kind of questions citizens ask of their system.  Nonetheless, our community needs to catch up in order to demand its rights pertinent to the year 2015. 

As to which part of our society we should start working on in order to affect a considerable change Daniel Kibret direct us towards the building blocks of our community.  When we strive to change a society, he says, we have to examine what constitutes the thing we want to change.  In order to eradicate gender biases that perpetuate a skewed mind-set of equality, we should utilize the special access point the religious leaders and head figures for traditional institutions have on our deeply cultural and religious society.  Directing our energy towards working with religious and cultural institutions, involving them as active worriers in the fight to restore equity between genders increases the stakes and ensures the involvement of the majority portion of our society.  This belief was challenged by a comment from the audience who’s sceptical about the perception of change these ancient and long-standing establishments have and accuses Mr.Kibret of underestimating the efforts required to bringing about change in their ritual and practices.  Instead of outside criticisms, raising awareness from within each cultural and religious group is key to minimize their resistance, responds Mr.Kibret, and gives each participant in the seminar the responsibility to initiate dialogues about women’s right within the societal functions each belongs to. Selome Tadesse spoke out here emphasizing the power political institutions have in bringing about change.  Serious political commitment is mandatory for a developing country like Ethiopia and cannot be undermined in affecting change.  Ms Tadesse cites Federalism, as an alien concept that surged within and became integrated in our society by political means and urges Women’s rights to be institutionalized the same way movements for ethnic equality has been in recent years. 

MsTaddess also took the opportunity to reply to MrKibret’s observation that the lack of role models for women in leadership positions is in actuality a problem with the way history is written.  The society is partly made out of stories, says Daniel Kibret, and the storytellers have the power to weave the content according to their liking.  Having predominantly male Historians, it is not surprising, he says, that women’s stories still remain untold.   SelomeTadesse, on the other hand, is of the belief that the absence of illustrious women’s biographies is not the lack of female perception but a matter of desire.  Had historians wanted to document the lives of powerful women in history they could easily have done so.  Many foreign figures have been incorporated in our society’s radar due to domestic Historians’ desires to know and write about them.  [Our history books have failed in documenting our actual stories; we are not in-sync and have yet to make peace with our history.] The problem in history goes beyond its writer’s partiality.  We talk about women’s equality in a language that degrades women, observes Kibret, and as a society we have not yet adopted the skill set to conduct a meaningful dialectic.

Billene Seyoum opened the platform for closing remarks with the statement that culture is dynamic and we can’t cower behind its context as a rigid structure to hide from our own internal resistance to change and she gave each of the panellists the opportunity to compress and highlight their goals moving forward. SelomeTadesse condemned a popular criticism against feminism, which accuses some of women’s rights question in our society having “Western” origins.  “There is no such thing!” says Ms Tadesse further emphasizing the fact that all of women’s rights questions are valid and necessary. 

Mrs FrealemShibabaw reminds us the amorphous nature of our educational system; it is flexible and can be shaped to accommodate our needs but our humanity cannot, thus we should utilize our contextual learning environment and model our schools according to the kids who’ll attend them. Daniel Kibret advocates for a perpetual struggle.  He said we need educated courage to start a movement and our strongest weapon to fight for women’s rights is our big idea.  Let’s not only have husbands that care for their expecting wives but also men that are pregnant themselves. 

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