“Do what needs to be done” – Yalem Seyoum

Yalem Seyoum was born in Maichew , South Tigray  where she attended her elementary and junior secondary schooling. While in high school at Atse Yohannes secondary school in Mekelle  , Yalem was one of many Ethiopian students who participated in the “Edget Behibret” – Development Through Cooperation Campaign. She was first sent to Abi Adi and then to Hagereselam.  While on this assignment, Yalem joined the student movement in 1976. With months left for the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Exam(ESLCE), popularly known as Matric at the time, she  joined the armed struggle as a member of  a city cell. Much to her dismay, however, she was unable to sit for it due to the existence of mass, politically motivated killings known as Red Terror. In March of 1978, Yalem said goodbye to her studies and joined the armed struggle. Speaking of her decision to join the armed struggle, when asked why she left  her studies at such a critical time, Yalem says” There was just too much rampant killing that it was just unbearable”.

Upon joining the armed struggle, she underwent combat training as part of a group of 24 young girls who came straight from their schools in the city. Upon completing the training, she started as a regular righter and worked her way up to a level of an Army “commissar” (equivalent to a current major). She then became a trainer for a group of women and an entire battalion of women that was more than a thousand strong was trained by her and her other female colleagues. Upon completion of training, these women fighters were called “D’ala” meaning “Equal” – which signifies that women fighters were just as good as men fighters.  From her time in the army, Yalem remembers that women were at the forefront as top fighters and leaders.

Yalem assumed leadership positions and starting in 1986, she was in  charge of regional finance and economic issues for areas  which were by then freed by the army. In 1991, after the overthrow of the dergue regime , Yalem became a Budget section head for EPRDF.  She went back to school because she was determined to complete her education. Repeating both 11th   and 12th grades, she joined Addis Ababa University and studied Economics and completed her 4th year at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. Upon completing her studies, she worked in Wegagen bank and in different positions of the then Inland Revenue Authority.

Yalem then joined the then Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation(ETC) as an expert in May 2006 .  At this new position, Yalem was tasked with setting up a Women’s Affairs office. After reviewing a study conducted by the corporation with regard to its current status of female employees, she presented her recommendations and forwarded her initiatives.  In April 2007, the Women’s affairs office was formally set up.  She remembers this time fondly, saying” The department was a one –person operation for the first year but we built a capable and enthusiastic team in a short period of time”. Priority at the time was given to give basic training and buy –in regarding the activities of the office. The trainings started from the top management of the organization and eventually cascaded to all levels. “ It was all about internal capacity building”, Yalem says; which was done with the support of many senior level gender experts such as Wro. Zewde Abegaz , Wro. Aster Worku and many others from national and international organizations.

She is currently serving as a Director for the office of Women and Children Affairs of   Ethio –Telecom. The position earned her a seat at the Executive management table of the organization. Her job is ensuring women’s participation in every aspect of the organization’s operation and ensuring the needs of children in ethio telecom’s service are represented . The directorate that she leads works heavily around customized training for all employees on inclusiveness- according to their level-, specialized training to female employees to use their full potential and creation of a supportive environment for female employees.  Some of the major activities it engages on also include

  • conducting studies on issues relevant to female employees & recommending  introduction of and amendments to policy based on studies. Ethio telecom now has a Women’s Policy in place.
  • sharing  best practice to other organizations especially with regard to encouraging children and youth participation in science and technology
  • event organization on different occasions to celebrate women and acknowledge male employee partnerships

All this is driven with the annual plan for the overall organization and a time table developed for each section. Programs are periodically reviewed and consultative meetings with stakeholders, governmental and non-governmental officers are held regularly.

Above all, she considers her major accomplishment to be the work which was done by the department she now leads in its preparation in the wake of a major transformation ethio telecom went through. The transformation process affected all aspects of the organization’s process which meant that the call center where the majority of employees were females who have worked diligently for many years despite not having   completed high school. Yalem ensured that these employees were recognized appropriately before those who had the requisite education were re-deployed according to their capacity while the rest were offered compensations commensurate with their years of service. A special ceremony was held on the occasion of March 8 in 2010 to honor those with long service by awarding them various prestigious gold medals and pins. In addition, a study conducted after the completion of the transformation process indicated that the proportion of positions held by women was 14%-  down from the 30% prior to the transformation. This and a complete gender audit conducted by the company prompted a number of initiatives. Yalem and her team’s recommendations were presented to the board and accepted in full so that the transformation was a healthy one. Among the initiatives, we can find:

  • A female leaders forum to increase the number of women in decision making positions through dedicated support, networking and training opportunities
  • Recruitment of 60% of female employees for entry level positions with 40% of customer service roles going to female employees
  • Affirmative action for internal promotion and transfer opportunities
  • Ethio telecom’s male engagement campaign that has involved  40 + male colleagues in a “He for She” campaign
  • Allocation of adequate amount of budget for training for female as well as male employees with regard to gender related training
  • A seat at the negotiating table during collective bargaining. As a result there are at least 12 articles dealing with  women specific issues
  • Support provided to female students in STEM(Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields in 13 universities
  • School feeding and educational materials support programs in 5 elementary schools in Addis Ababa that serve underprivileged children.
  • Ethio telecom’s commitment to serve 2500 under privileged students over a 10 year period as part of “ Ye Enat Weg” charitable association for which the first lady is a patron of.
  • A regular reforestation program carried out in and around Addis every year, involving male as well as female employees – thereby fulfilling ethio telecom’s commitment to environmental protection

Aside from her professional endeavors, Yalem is passionate about causes that involve women and mothers. She is very proud that she has been instrumental in facilitating Huwaei’s donation of 30 laptops for the Mekelle Institute of Technology, ZTE’s support to fully equip the computer lab of an elementary school in Addis Ababa with computers, desks & chairs and China Communication Services’ support to similarly equip Tikur Anbessa high school’s computer lab.

When asked about here leisure time activities, she immediately replies with a hearty laugh” Almost everyone knows that I walk for at least 45 minutes, EVERYDAY in the morning. It has become a habit, especially if I’m stressed out”. “Watching movies in cinemas and attending theaters, reading books and catching up with friends also make me happy”, she adds. Yalem has furthered her education and obtained an MA in Transformational Leadership and Change from University of Greenwich. She is also a recipient of many awards and appreciation letters from governmental and non –governmental institutions such as an association by the name of “Women Can Do It”.

Yalem wants the younger generation to know the importance of using one’s full potential. She also would like everyone, regardless of age and sex to be well versed in technology.   Again for all of us, she says, “We must shun violence, it is just a high price to pay for something that doesn’t sit well with all of us.”  She recognizes that there is more responsibility and challenge as one goes up in the corporate ladder and in life.  She emphasizes that we have to be ready to face these challenges by doubling our efforts. She emphasizes that women’s capacity is in no way under question. Capacity building is provided for both males and females. The main issue now is presenting females with opportunities to shine.     “With self belief and continuous self development, we should be ready to do what needs to be done.” She says.

Although she recognizes that there are many more things that need to be done and improved, Yalem is happy that she now sees the results of the cause she has fought for; her ultimate goal – to be of service for the entire public. 

AWiB wishes Yalem all the best in the future and commends her department’s work in nurturing leadership.

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