The 4th and final seminar in the Dearth of Women’s Leadership in Ethiopia seminar – Recap

The 4th and final seminar in the Dearth of Women’s Leadership in Ethiopia seminar series took place on September 15, 2017 at Sheraton Hotel. The seminar hosted in collaboration with AwiB and Earuyan Solutions, and supported by the Austrian Development Cooperation was titled “The Approach to Gender Equality: Service or Disservice to Promoting Ethiopian Women’s Leadership?” The seminar was designed to examine gender equality approaches incentivizing the participation of women in leadership and decision-making.

The event started with an opening by Ms. Nahusenay Girma, Director of AWiB, who gave a brief recap of the trajectory of the series from its first seminar to its fourth and final. She took a moment to thank Ms. Billene Seyoum, founder and Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions, who was commemorating her birthday, for her immeasurable contribution to making the series happen. Ms. Nahusensay also thanked Ms. Selome Tadesse, who has moderated all four seminars, for her fearless interrogations and seamless facilitation of the series. 

Following a brief introduction of the seminar structure by Ms. Tsinu Amdeselassie of Earuyan Solutions, the panelists were introduced: Ms. Hiwot Emishaw, Director of Communications for Save the Children Ethiopia and author; Mr. Daniel Hailu, Managing Director of Litmus Research PLC and ArifWond member; Ms. Ekram Mohammed, Lecturer at Addis Ababa University and gender expert; and Ms. Dina Makonnen, Human Resources Director at Heineken Ethiopia.

The first question posed to panelists was regarding their perception of current approaches to gender equality: have they been effective or not? What are the reasons for this? Despite the fact that some approaches have worked to an extent, Ms. Dina replied, they’ve tended to follow a phasing in and out pattern, where gender equality is a hot topic for a while that’s easily put on the back burner. Projects are promoted but fail to be implemented or followed up and there’s a public furor surrounding the issue that dims as time goes on. Ms. Dina’s answer to the reason behind this pattern is that we have not yet solved our ‘unconscious bias about gender awareness’ and tend to invest more focus on symptomatic issues.

Ms. Hiwot added that intermittent progress characterizes our past and current approaches to gender equality and pointed out that these approaches are further plagued by two fundamental problems: association of gender equality with hating men and affirmative action without simultaneous work on the fundamentalproblem—the collective mindset. While women’s organizations and NGO’s working on gender should be commended for their effort, she said, they also tend to choose the easiest, true and tried path, focusing on hot topics or issues that have donor acceptance.

In response to what has worked so far in approaches to gender equality, the panelists mentioned the usual milestones of progress: the revision of the family law and the penal code, laws on sexual harassment, affirmative action in school and the workplace. They pointed out, however, that these measures can be double edged in nature: affirmative action alone can do as much harm as it has done good and constitutional amendments can be superficial without true change in our collective mindset.

Reiterating that the seminar’s focus is on analyzing the discourse of gender justice instead of gender justice itself, Mr. Daniel went on to discuss what he thinks is the fundamental problem in the current dominant approach: it assumes a single narrative, one that states that women are disadvantaged and men have the advantage. This creates a binary paradigm that Mr. Daniel believes has historically and globally marginalized men within the conversation on gender justice. Regarding the discourse in Ethiopia, Mr. Daniel expressed the belief that there’s a singular discourse inherited from liberal feminism—western driven and tied with liberal democracy—that patronizes other women and demonizes men. In the same vein, Ms. Ekram questioned whether we have adopted the gender discourse to our culture and whether we have truly accepted gender justice as both women’s and men’s issue instead of operating within a narrative of victimization and blame. 

The ‘Ethiopianization’ of gender justice resonated with some members of the audience, who agreed that we need an Ethiopian feminism, which we can construct by examining the history of women’s involvement in our society. They also emphasized the need for men’s participation in any effort that aims to bring about gender justice, asserting that men are also victims of our current understanding of gender roles. 

Bringing back the discussion to the idea of feminism as an imported concept, Ms. Selome addressed the criticism most often directed at gender advocates in Ethiopia—that they are elitist and do not focus on the average Ethiopian woman, whose day to day reality they do not understand.  She posed a pertinent question to both the panelists and the audience: “Are we criticizing the fact that it’s the elite that always articulate issues of social justice in any area? Or is this an issue specific to the women’s movement?” She gave the example that farmers, for instance, are not present at agricultural policymaking events and questioned whether we are criticizing this general trend. She added that women in rural areas are using their own platforms to articulate what matters to them just like is being done in so called elite circles: the real problem is that neither group is being heard. 

The next phase of the seminar focused on what needs to change in current approaches to gender equality and how we should go forward.  Panelists highlighted different areas for improvement: Ms. Hiwot suggested that we should make sure there’s a trickling down from policy level discussions to the younger generation of girls and boys. She suggested that we should encourage active involvement of the younger generation by inviting them to such forums. Ms. Dina, on the other hand, emphasized the need for inclusion and diversity, defining these concepts as understanding and accepting the perspectives of others, giving space to them, and growing together. We need to question, she said, whether our organizations and institutions truly embody these principles and accommodate women. She further added that diversity means an integrated, holistic approach that takes into account,not only gender, but also ethnicity, religion and other factors.

Drawing from her own experience, Ms. Ekram, pointed out that there is a big problem in academic arena: the number of women in academia is very low—there are only two women professors in Ethiopia—and they face stereotypical treatment that throws their achievements and abilities into question. 

When it comes to addressing the question of elitism within the women’s movement, panelists agreed that the elite should play the role of facilitators. “While the elite paves the way for initiatives to shape,” Ms. Dina said, “they needs to find ways of making initiatives accessible.”

In general, they all agreed on a number of key recommendations with the underlying aim of moving away from a single narrative of gender inequality: focusing on diversity and inclusion; contextualizing feminism in Ethiopia; encouraging the participation of men in the gender justice movement; and reshaping education to reflect values of equality instead of propagating stereotypes.

The seminar concluded with the promise by Earuyan Solutions and AWiB to condense the findings of the series into a policy recommendation report that will be widely disseminated.

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