Aster Zaoude – A committed Gender Equality practitioner

In the month of February 2013 we spotlight Aster Zaoude.

Aster Zaoude was born in 1953 and raised in Addis Ababa until 1970, at which point she completed her Baccalaureate at Lycee Guebre Mariam and left for France to study Law in Aix en Provence. Thereafter, she pursued her graduate studies in International Law at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Aster was raised by a mother who was a pioneer female entrepreneur and by an exceptional father who served his country with dedication and was a strong believer in equality and justice. She recalled that, “they believed in their girls and saw us reach the stars and become good citizens, responsible professionals and good parents. I have nothing to add to the basic values and principles that shaped my life and it is the same values that I have tried to pass on to my two children”. Zeleka Yeraswork is a graduate of Tufts  and Columbia University and Zewde Yeraswork is a graduate of Stanford University.The importance of education, especially girls education, economic empowerment and gender equality were fully engrained early in her life and became her passion and the essence of her professional career.

Aster took early retirement from the United Nations in January 2011 after serving the Organization for three decades, in different capacities and at senior level positions including: Head of South/South Cooperation Project at UNECA in Addis Ababa; Chief of Evaluation Section and Manager of the Knowledge Bank at UNIFEM/New York; Regional Director of UNIFEM in  West/Central and North Africa; Director of Gender and Development at UNDP/New York; and Chief Conduct and Discipline Unit at UN Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan. Following her retirement she worked for one year at the Institute of International Education in Addis to establish in 4 African countries “Centers of Excellence for women’s leadership”, a programme funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Among her recent activities, Aster is an active member of the Rotary Club ‘Entoto’, and the initiator of the Tsehay Zewde Scholarship Fund for vision impaired students attending Addis Abeba University. This initiative named after her late sister, is set up to provide scholarship funds, special equipments and life skills/leadership training for 100 vision impaired female students who face multiple challenges due to their disability.

When asked how else she gives back to the community, Aster shared “there are many ways of giving back besides making modest contributions to those in need and besides advising a few young women who seek guidance and support. I am still exploring more effective ways to be of service to my community. I would like to share more broadly my life long passion and 30 years of professional experience working around the globe for gender equality and women’s empowerment, especially on campaigns to end violence against women. I feel that we can learn much more from the wealth of experience accumulated by women around the world with whom we share similar struggles against gender based discrimination, violence and violation of women’s rights. We could all benefit from networking and linking up with the global women’s movement. I would like to make my modest contribution in this respect.”

Asked about her most important accomplishment, Aster shared that it was her 5 years at UNDP that were most challenging and rewarding at the same time. After spending the early part of her career (1985-2000) working among likeminded women at UNIFEM, on the most innovative and effective programmes that promote women’s empowerment, in 2000 Aster was appointed by Sir Mallock Brown, then Administrator of UNDP to head the UNDP Gender and Development Programme in New York. It was a great opportunity to scale up those innovative approaches that worked for women at grassroots levels.  But it was a major challenge to engender the ‘mainstream development agenda’ of UNDP in a way that transforms the agenda itself, sets new priorities and shifts paradigms that prevailed over decades of development assistance. Within 5 years, UNDP’s policies, programmes, resources and practices were successfully ‘engendered’ in 45 of the 168 country offices, thanks to the support of UNDP’s top leadership, a small but dedicated team and substantial earmarked funding from a major donor. This was a major achievement that paved the way for serious gender sensitive programming within UNDP and planted the seeds for what was possible when gender issues are taken seriously. By the time Aster left UNDP/New York in 2000 to join UN Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan, the MDGs included Goal 3 dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment; UNDP was on a solid track to continue mainstreaming gender; donors commended UNDP for its accomplishments and, more funds and additional staff were allocated to the Gender Programme at UNDP which has grown exponentially since then. Aster feels that her accomplishment was to have built a solid foundation for gender responsive programming and to have generated far larger resources for gender related work than what she started with in 2000.

Before her appointment as head of the UNDP Gender and Development Programme, Aster worked for 15 years with UNIFEM. UNIFEM was created in 1976 under the leadership of its founding Director Margaret Snyder followed by the late Sharon Capeling-Alakija then USG Noeleen Heyzer until it was recently replaced by a new entity – UN Women headed by former Chilean President, Michele Bachelet.

This woman – with a vast international experience, who worked with leaders in Governments and leaders of grassroots organizations and who has travelled extensively around the world to over 86 countries from Tokyo to Chile, from Norway to South Africa, from Moscow to Kuwait and many more countries in between – wants to encourage the young generation to break new grounds for gender equality. She believes young women and men should establish a serious dialogue on gender equality and their shared future.  They should shape their own collective dream and forge a common agenda for their future, building on lessons from the past.

She continues, “the dreams we had, as idealist as we were in the 70s, were ‘our dreams’ dictated by the world we lived in. They cannot shape the 21st century. The world has changed and women in many ways have found their rightful place in many societies. But I also fear that we have regressed in some serious ways when it comes to gender relations. Many young women today risk becoming victims of violence at the hands of their fellow male friends and partners.  From a young student being gang raped in India, to honor killing in Pakistan and burning with acid, mutilating and threatening young girls here at home, gender based violence remains a grave concern and calls for serious action. In my view, young women need their own space to engage in a serious dialogue among themselves about what is means to be a woman today and how they want to engage young men in standing for women’s rights and equality in all areas. It needs to be an open, frank and deep dialogue, especially on issues of sexual violence, reproductive health and rights. The silence should be broken on the rise of gender based violence in schools, neighborhoods and homes. Existing laws should be strengthened and fully enforced to punish sexual predators and deter others.  A nation-wide campaign to end violence against women and girls would raise public awareness and expose the sufferings of victims of violence.

Aster wholeheartedly believes that there is nothing that young women cannot achieve once they build confidence and believe in themselves. Young women should aspire to becoming what they want to be, be it leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals in all fields and thinkers in their own right.  She hopes our young women will follow the footsteps of the heroic women who have shaped our history.

A reader, a traveller and explorer and soon an author of a book on her life experience, Aster feels blessed to have wonderful friends and a family who fill her life with joy. Aster also believes that it is a blessing to be able to retire early from active duty to enjoy a peaceful life, back in her beloved home country.

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