Organizational Excellence – WOE 2017
THE ETHIOPIAN WOMEN LAWYERS ASSOCIATION – A STORY OF SERVICE, MOVEMENT BUILDING & SURVIVAL ROOTED IN ETHIOPIA’S POLITICAL LEGACY
AUTHORED BY: BILLENE SEYOUM WOLDEYES, EARUYAN SOLUTIONS
DATE: AUGUST 2017
COMMISSIONED BY: AWIB ETHIOPIA
Background & Acknowledgements
Earuyan Solutions was commissioned by AWiB in July 2017 to undertake research into the legacy of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), reviewing its historical underpinning, formation and current state of play. This paper was commissioned for the purposes of providing background information and input for the development of a documentary on EWLA by AWiB.
As part of the annual Women of Excellence (WOE) Awards, AWiB has been recognizing various individuals, in addition to award nominees. In 2013, Dr. Jember Tefera was recognized for her lifetime work on urban poverty. In 2015, a Posthumous Excellence Award recognized Senedu Gebru, first female parliamentarian, a patriot, an activist and a humanitarian. In 2016, Hermella Wondimu, a young woman was recognized for her immense contribution of bringing clean water to impoverished communities in Northern Ethiopia. In the 2017 edition of the Women of Excellence Awards, AWiB will be celebrating EWLA for its indelible contribution to Ethiopia and all Ethiopians. This paper is therefore an effort to recognize and document the organization’s unparalleled role in advocating for women’s rights in Ethiopia.
Acknowledgements are given to all interviewees for sharing openly and freely. Special gratitude to Meron Aragaw, current Director of EWLA, and Mahdere Paulos, past Director of EWLA for both providing pertinent documentation on the organization.
The birth and journey of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is a fascinating story of idealism, realism and how a group of impassionate, strategic and committed Ethiopian women and their male allies created a force and a women’s movement to be reckoned with. In its formative years, EWLA seized the window of opportunity that had opened up amidst the optimism of a burgeoning democracy and mobilized many women and men throughout the regions of Ethiopia. It managed to push the envelope in the kinds of conversations that a post-conflict society could have following the fall of the Derg regime. It also emulated authentic citizen engagement in policy making; cultivated an atmosphere of evidence based advocacy through the cutting edge research it commissioned or undertook itself; transformed the lives of many Ethiopian women in standing up for their rights and armed women with the knowledge and information they needed to negotiate the patriarchal landscapes of their private lives, by bringing the “domestic” to the public arena. EWLA demonstrated in its glorious days the role that civil society can play in democratizing a nation. The EWLA journey however, also gives testament to how the strength of any entity – individual or collective – can become its weakness; through its strengthened role as a civil society organization with the capacity to awaken and mobilize thousands, EWLA also became a sore spot for a democracy still in infancy.
This story paints a picture of how the first independent women’s organizing in Ethiopia formed amidst a tumultuous political history, grew in strength, weakened and managed to survive in the span of twenty plus years.
The circumstances that paved the path for the formation of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and the related fight for women’s rights are rooted in the country’s socio-economic and political history. From what has been recorded historically, Ethiopia’s past can be characterized as devoid of independent women’s organizing extricated from state sanctioned or affiliated activities that attempted to include women in the public sphere. These attempts could be viewed as laying the groundwork for future strengthened activities that would challenge the status quo of women’s prescribed lives to the domestic sphere. However, viewing the activities of yesteryears through the lens of modernity and the evolved demands and complexities of women’s lives today would be unfair. Therefore, while we cannot maintain that activities undertaken in Ethiopia’s different political eras did not amount to sowing the seeds for a women’s movement to take shape, the lack of continuity and fragmented nature owing to political allegiances indicates the dearth of women’s independent organizing in Ethiopia, which provided a conducive environment for the birth of a non-partisan EWLA.
During the Imperial era for example, the emergence of the Ethiopian Women Welfare Association, founded by Empress Menen and on its heels the founding of the Ethiopian Women’s Volunteer Service, are recognized as the first women’s organizations in the country that mobilized women outside of the normative social institutions like iddirs, equb’s and neighborhood mahibers. While both emerged on the margins of the Ethio-Italian war and were initially limited to mobilizing women in Addis Ababa, the former focused on provision of medicine, production and distribution of gauze, clothing, gas masks and the likes to injured soldiers. The latter, which later adopted the name, Ethiopian Patriot Women’s Association, was focused primarily on the production and distribution of dry food stuff for soldiers during the Ethio-Italian war.
Following the five-year occupation of Ethiopia by Italy and the return of Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne, the two women’s organizations that had seized to operate during the occupation, re-emerged in unison and took the umbrella name Ethiopian Women Welfare Association. The association’s charter explains its broad focus rooted in the post-occupation, post-war period as the provision of support to those in need; to the sick; the disabled; to women who lost their husbands; to orphans; to find solutions in healthy upbringing of infants and ultimately in supporting women strengthen their domestic role.2 The latter activity is especially seen as contentious in intensifying the role of women to the domestic sphere. However, the association in its growth and expansion tackled a number of issues and undertook various activities including access to education by opening up several schools in Addis Ababa and the regions; economic empowerment of impoverished women through setting up of shops to sell their produce; setting up women and children’s clinics and training of mid-wives. The association is also said to have created diverse platforms and forums to discuss issues of importance to a segment of women at that point in time, and inspired the formation of other smaller women’s associations i.e. Armed Forces’ Wives Association, Ethiopian Young Women’s Christian Association, etc.
While these women’s organizations served the agenda, and needs of the niche they were formed to address, the locus of women’s organizing failed to cast a strong light on the legal frameworks that govern to a large extent the rights of women in Ethiopia. In essence the penal code that came into effect in 1957 by the Imperial government and the civil code of 1960 did not reflect a change in the status quo of male and female relations and power dynamics; in fact, both legal frameworks emboldened male superiority and female subservience. i.e. the husband as the head of the family (Art.635); management of the family under the guidance of the husband (Art.637); and authorizing the husband to guide the conduct of his wife (Art.644). 3 Herein these and other articles within the civil code and the penal code dwelled the need for an association like EWLA that would unpack what remained gospel for millennia. It cannot be said with certainty, however, that given the time and space whether these women’s associations or others would have ultimately taken up the issues that took decades to address. But with the coming into power of the Derg regime, the work of these associations was halted and their property nationalized, marking the second fragmentation in Ethiopian women’s modern organizing.
The Derg regime and its socialist ideology claimed the ‘women’s question’ was to be treated as its own political agenda in the early years of the regime. Gender equality was a key issue that was raised and the role of women in land reforms, peasant associations and development campaigns gained wider recognition in examining the many burdens and oppressions Ethiopian women were faced with. However, women’s organizing in this period was not free of political meandering as any form of organizing took on a partisan approach between what were considered revolutionary and anti-revolutionary wings.4 Any reorganizing of women’s groups that took shape post the Red Terror5 years were therefore wholly state sanctioned and led.
When in 1991 the Derg military regime was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces and a transitional government institutionalized, one of the clear focus areas of the new government was addressing through policy and bringing to the fore the ‘women’s question’. To that effect a women’s affairs office was created within the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with national coordination and follow-up of activities addressing women’s issues politically, economically and socially. Through endorsement of a National Policy on women, this set-up was further cascaded into the regions and government offices nationwide.
It is in these early years of the transitional government of Ethiopia that the tentacles of independent women’s organizing were beginning to take form. In August 1995, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) was proclaimed and with it the inauguration of the Constitution which was based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Outlining individual freedoms and liberties, the 1995 FDRE Constitution recognized the protection of women’s rights, particularly in Article 356 which clearly outlined the rights of women as follows:
- Women shall, in the enjoyment of rights and protections provided for by this Constitution, have equal right with men.
- Women have equal rights with men in marriage as prescribed by this Constitution.
- The historical legacy of inequality and discrimination suffered by women in Ethiopia taken into account, women, in order to remedy this legacy, are entitled to affirmative measures. The purpose of such measures shall be to provide special attention to women so as to enable them to compete and participate on the basis of equality with men in political, social and economic life as well as in public and private institutions.
- The State shall enforce the right of women to eliminate the influences of harmful customs. Laws, customs and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women are prohibited.
a. Women have the right to maternity leave with full pay. The duration of maternity leave shall be determined by law taking into account the nature of the work, the health of the mother and the well-being of the child and family.
b. Maternity leave may, in accordance with the provisions of law, include prenatal leave with full pay.
- Women have the right to full consultation in the formulation of national development policies, the designing and execution of projects, and particularly in the case of projects affecting the interests of women.
- Women have the right to acquire, administer, control, use and transfer property. In particular, they have equal rights with men with respect to use, transfer, administration and control of land. They shall also enjoy equal treatment in the inheritance of property.
- Women shall have a right to equality in employment, promotion, pay, and the transfer of pension entitlements.
- To prevent harm arising from pregnancy and childbirth and in order to safeguard their health, women have the right of access to family planning education, information and capacity.
The coming into effect of the Constitution and its articles referencing women’s rights became an important mobilizing force for the founding of EWLA in 1995. In addition to the Constitution, the post-Derg early period introduced a new political context in its promotion of a new democratic Ethiopia that gave the space for independent organizing to flourish. The political context then at the time of EWLA’s birth can be considered highly favorable and conducive. While the context for women in Ethiopia at the time of EWLA’s formation was still governed by cultural taboos and expectations that confined most women to the domestic sphere and gave little redress for victims and survivors of different forms of sanctioned violence, including those categorized as harmful traditional practices.
As some of EWLA’s founding members contributed to the constitutional reform process, this became a timely basis upon which Ethiopian women lawyers could utilize their profession in the service of further advocacy and protection of women’s rights in the country. A vivid entry point for the women of EWLA and their supporting men7 was the clear discrepancy between the rights secured in the Constitution for women and the laws that were in place at the time. i.e. the penal code and the civil code. Hence, the Constitution became the tool and EWLA the vehicle for the promotion and reflection of women’s rights in Ethiopian law. 8 By June 1995, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) was formed with full membership privileges granted to Ethiopian women lawyers; and associate membership open to women who are not practicing law and male members.
Issues EWLA addressed
From its inception, EWLA seems to have been very clear and strategic about the issues it wanted to address capitalizing on its core members’ legal knowledge:
- Identify gaps in the laws, legal system and policy that discriminated against women and girls through research and make related policy and legal reform recommendations;
- Enable access to justice for impoverished women through provision of pro bono legal aid; and
- Create nation-wide awareness about women’s rights and advocate for gender equality at all levels through undertaking outreach, capacity building and research activities.
With regards to the first issue that EWLA wanted to tackle, there seemed to be many discrepancies between the Constitution (which in its inauguration became the key governing document of the land), and the laws that were inherited from the Imperial era. For example, while the Constitution established that the legal age of entry into enforceable contracts was eighteen for all, the Family Code still had it that the age of legal marriage for boys was eighteen while it was fifteen for girls. If the infamous Article 35 granted equal rights to women and men, why then was the legal age to enter into marriage lower by three years, EWLA argued. Similarly, the law did very little to protect women who were raped, especially if the man agreed to marry his victim. In such instances, it was considered that the man was within his right. The criminal procedure context also entailed a lot of reconciliatory work that police were undertaking when victims reported cases of rape, sexual violence and harassment, instead of following due process to bring perpetrators to justice. Such discrepancies that EWLA identified through research and scaled up to policy makers in the House of People’s Representative ultimately paved the way for the reform of the family law, penal law and criminal procedure code, and nationality and citizenship laws with regards to how they reflected women’s rights. “Since its establishment, EWLA has commissioned thirteen pieces of research covering most of the laws that affect women and their rights. Under the research and law reform advocacy programme, EWLA conducted an inventory of laws that discriminated against women in light of the Constitution and other human rights conventions to which Ethiopia is party.” 9 With these efforts, the recommendations generated by EWLA were accepted and included in the Family Code reform of 2000 and the Penal Code reform of 2004.
The legal aid component of EWLA’s work is perhaps its most groundbreaking contribution to transforming the lives of thousands of Ethiopian women throughout its existence. While the legal reform EWLA helped introduce made the laws gender sensitive, an impediment to accessing justice existed for a lot of women. When women presented their cases to court, they had insufficient information and know-how to navigate the justice system; some of them could barely explain their cases adequately; some did not have the financial means to undertake these cases including hiring a lawyer to stand trial for them.10 A low hanging fruit for most of EWLA’s members, who were practicing lawyers or former judges, they set-up free legal aid service throughout the country establishing over 60 paralegal centers in addition to regional branch offices.
It is reported that in 2007-2008, EWLA scaled up its legal aid provision by setting up a free hot-line legal advisory and information center, to enable people who sought assistance to reach out to legal aid officers from any part of the country by dialing #940. In addition to this expansion, the legal aid service also broadened its outreach in Addis Ababa by including nine new legal aid centers that were opened in all nine sub-cities. 11
The third key pillar that EWLA took specific actions towards includes, ensuring women’s rights made it to the national forum as a key development and social justice agenda. This pillar entailed undertaking extensive outreach activities, particularly using media, convening forums to generate dialogue on different issues, providing capacity building trainings to different segments of society and government, including law enforcement bodies; ensuring that the amended laws were integrated into curriculum at the Police College, especially around harmful traditional practices and the due process police have to undertake in addressing women’s rights violations. They ran public awareness campaigns; held community dialogues and cascaded knowledge through training of trainers; produced manuals and extensive publications that dissected various aspects of women’s lives in Ethiopia in relation to their rights; generated informative materials on women’s rights in various local languages, including making the reformed laws disability accessible by having them written in braille. They participated in different task forces set-up by government; created linkages with burgeoning civil society organizations locally and internationally and forged alliances with key stakeholders within government. Every avenue there was to advocating for Ethiopian women’s rights, EWLA identified and travelled through.12
Particularly unique to EWLA, in the way Ethiopian women organized and mobilized, is the extensive research they undertook as a basis for their advocacy and public education. EWLA is an Ethiopian pioneer in utilizing locally sourced data and evidence to advocate for and lobby government in legal reforms. Their evidence building work underwent extensive discussions with key stakeholders and validation processes, integrating various inputs before utilizing findings to lobby, advocate or educate. An interviewee also shares that their evidence-based approach to advocacy and sensitization gained them a listening ear within modern and traditional institutions13 i.e. Parliament, religious establishments, etc. Where dialogue without the evidence to support their arguments would border the philosophical, many of the people they engaged in dialogue were receptive to the findings of their research. Additional to the research EWLA commissioned, the increasing number of legal aid recipients also became sources of data and information.
To address the overwhelming demand for legal aid, not only in Addis Ababa but also in the regions, EWLA mobilized more than 300 volunteers who were equipped with adequate training on basic legal issues so that they can serve as the equivalent of paralegals in the Ethiopian context and support EWLA extend its reach into the regions. The support that these paralegals were providing was attended to in collaboration with the regional women’s affairs offices. Where the cases that they were confronted with was above the basic legal expertise that these volunteers were equipped with, they would refer the case to established committee representatives in the regions who would further scale it up to the main EWLA office in Addis Ababa, in instances where the case was above their expertise. Such was the set-up in which EWLA cascaded its service tentacles deep into the regions and at a grass roots level.
As part of its activities in ensuring Ethiopian women played a key role in political decision-making, EWLA also began encouraging women’s political participation by way of voting as well as standing for public office. A member recalls the travels they took to the regions lobbying women to run for office, training them on the basis of experiences from proximate countries like Uganda. Women in the regions challenged EWLA members on why they themselves were not running for office in their attempts to mobilize other women to do so. In response to this challenge, EWLA positioned one of its own members to run for office as an independent candidate in the 2000 elections. Through its member’s involvement of running a campaign within her constituency in Addis Ababa, EWLA gained first-hand local experience on campaigning as a female candidate in Ethiopia. They leveraged this experience in their favour towards providing locally based evidence in how to run a campaign and run for a seat in parliament, rather than basing it on experiences from other African countries. During these times, EWLA also pushed the envelope a little further and challenged government on its conception of women’s representation within its membership base, questioning quantity and quality of representation. They also provided training to female members of parliament on serving their larger constituency – women – by crossing differences across party lines to be of service to all Ethiopian women. 14
In its foundational years and at its zenith, EWLA seems to have enjoyed broad-based support and respect for its pioneering work, not only at the national level but globally as well. There were many who received it positively in its novelty. As there were no other peer organizations equalling its reach and the respite it offered Ethiopian women, EWLA quickly became a preferred platform to ventilate what were normally issues hidden within homes. Additionally, as many people did not have a good understanding of the laws, EWLA also became an eye opener in terms of how the law could protect women.
There are some who view EWLA as having shown the characteristics of a movement, though not by deliberate design. As one member shared, “what makes a movement is whether that movement is really addressing an issue or a set of issues that are very close to people’s hearts, and is demonstrating how those issues can be slowly changed by ensuring inclusiveness.” As EWLA grew and the need for it increased, it became a movement, gaining supporters at every corner – from the grassroots level within the regions, to the Federal government level where even within the political system it had a lot of supporters and champions. EWLA also gave rise to the formation of other women’s organizations and it brought together a diverse group of people – women, men, professionals, young university law students, religious leaders – to rally behind the cause of advancing women’s rights in Ethiopia.
Although not a majority of voices, there were some within different sections of society that viewed EWLA as a threat to the traditional family unit. Perhaps not fully grasping the extent of Ethiopian women’s plight and susceptibility to various forms of gender based violence including grave domestic abuse, these voices often stereotypically branded the EWLA women as ‘husband-less’ or divorced women set out to destroy the family unit and its values.15
For the most part, however, EWLA’s fight for gender equality and the promotion of women’s rights managed to enter every household, if not directly by way of the services EWLA rendered, then through diverse media platforms. The renowned dramatist Abate Mekuria is noted to have been instrumental in supporting EWLA translate the debate around the new family law into a half hour drama shows that would be transmitted through media and followed by discussions that unpacked the themes highlighted in the drama. Members recall how these community conversations were always heated and enabled people to understand different perspectives on the particular issues raised.
1 Women’s Affair Wing of the Prime Minister’s Office. Activities & Vision – Ethiopian Women’s Movement in the 20th Century. 1993, p.5.
2 Ibid, 10.
3 Endalcachew Bayeh, Human Rights in Ethiopia: An Assessment on the Law and Practice of Women’s Rights. Humanities and Social Sciences 2015; 3(2): 83-87
4 Ibid, Women’s Affair Wing of the Prime Minister’s Office, P. 34
5 A violent political campaign against competing Marxist-Leninist groups in Ethiopia during the reign of
the Derg regime
7 High reverence is shown among founding board and associate members for the late Kifle Wedajo who is said to have been an instrumental ally for EWLA.
8 Interview with an EWLA Member (A), July 2017.
9 Burgess, Gemma. A Hidden History: Women ‘s Activism in Ethiopia. Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 14, No. 3 July 2013.
10 Interview with an EWLA Member (B), July 2017.
11 Interview with an EWLA Member (C), July 2017.
12 EWLA activities report
13 Interview with an EWLA Associate Member, July 2017.
Evaluating the early years
EWLA’s early years, according to some of its key members, was carried on the backs of highly driven and committed members – both core and associate– for most of whom the cause was a calling. The times were exciting as it entailed adopting new approaches and provided for a lot of learning. As has been mentioned earlier, the political environment which was still experimenting with democracy in its infancy, was quite conducive. Idealism reigned for the most part within the political landscape as well as among EWLA members, who strapped with their legal expertise, were also emboldened to push the envelope further at each juncture.
Its heydays are considered to be the period between 1995 – 2008 as it grew its mandate while maintaining a strong grip on its area of focus. It was within this period that it opened up regional offices and became broad based. Within this period, it also brought to public awareness and scrutiny landmark cases like Aberash Bekele’s16 and Hermella Wossenyeleh’s17 cases, which became challenging for the government as well. EWLA was also engaged in preparing and submitting shadow reports to a UN treaty body committee, as was expected of civil society organizations. Shadow reports, as important tools can highlight issues not raised by governments in their reporting to the UN by generating counter narratives and holding government accountable to the reports it was generating and submitting. Although in its early years it was taking on the form of a heavy weight for some and an irritant for others, still EWLA was invited to be part of different task forces set up by the government. This could be said to demonstrate the trust the regime had in EWLA to deliver key services that were contributing to the government’s national policy on women.
EWLA was also highly respected and trusted among development partners who experimented with the idea of ‘basket funding’ in which they pooled their resources together into one comprehensive core funding for EWLA’s activities. According to one of its members, what made EWLA unique in its heydays, in comparison with other non- governmental organizations, was that it did not have to do a lot of leg-work to access finances for its operations. As its sources of funding came with no restrictions in terms of utilization, EWLA was singularly placed to focus on its work rather than on multiple donor reporting that is illustrative of donor relations today. The extent of the work that was done by EWLA in these early years is also attributable to the financial capital it was able to generate. Therefore, in this honeymoon phase until the new CSO legislation came
16 Fourteen-year-old Aberash Bekele was abducted and raped with the intention of marriage. She later killed her abductor in attempting to escape captivity. EWLA took up this case and represented Aberash in court for her defiance against tradition in standing up against this form of violence.
17 Hermella Wossenyeleh was harassed for over eight years by Negussie Lemeneh who claimed to be infatuated with her. The harassment included stalking her, physical abuse – including sustaining gunshot to the face and attacking her sister with a skull. Despite being apprehended several times; law enforcement bodies would release Negussie after a few days. EWLA took up this case and represented Hermella but to no measure that would protect her. EWLA escalated her case to a public outcry that cost EWLA a suspension by the Ministry of Justice.
into effect, financial sustainability was not an issue of critical concern for EWLA. Rather, dire to the organization at that point was expanding its membership base to provide critical legal aid and better integrating its members in its every day work.
Significance of EWLA
What can then be considered the significance of EWLA? Beyond the many activities it engaged in and the noteworthy achievements it made, EWLA can be said to have played a significant role in modelling how civil society could support government in its democratization process. One of the key features of the 1995 Constitution is in the particular attention it paid to human rights, including the right to life, individual freedoms and liberties, rights to equality, rights to freedom of religion, beliefs and opinions. These articles pertaining to human rights in general and the specific articulation of women’s rights in subsequent articles was a beacon for the path that a new Ethiopia wanted to travel along in its journey towards a mature democracy. Experiences in other parts of the world and proximate countries in Africa as well, have shown the impact that civil society organizations can have in strengthening political culture. According to Hadenius and Uggla (1996), CSOs that are internally democratic and motivated by broader societal concerns can make a positive contribution to the process of democratization by fostering pluralism, promoting democratic values and enhancing political participation.18 Even by this narrow definition of the role that CSOs play in the democratization process, associating the work that EWLA undertook in its formative years through advocacy and service delivery, to the democratization process of the country would not be an overstatement. The lobbying work that EWLA undertook in reforming the laws; the public campaigns it organized to draw attention to and educate on the reformed laws and their applications; the legal aid support it provided which enabled Ethiopian women in understanding and better accessing their rights; the mobilizing work it did for women’s increased political participation; the capacity building support it provided the justice system, including its enforcement wing; and the open conversations and debates it stirred at a national level can be said to have contributed towards reigniting a political culture of open dialogue and fearlessness that had been lost during the Red Terror.
The second significant role that EWLA has played is related to its feature in initiating an inclusive independent women’s movement. In the organization’s capacity to engage proactively and advocate on behalf of Ethiopian women at the personal and policy level, EWLA inspired and facilitated the birth of many other women’s organizations focused on securing women’s social, political and economic rights. Long standing women’s rights organizations like the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Association (NEWA) and Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD) all pay heed to EWLA as the catalyzing force for their formation. At the time of EWLA’s formation and its foundational years, there were no other organizations that was supporting Ethiopian women vocalize issues important to them and extract these issues from the domestic
18 Hadenius, A and Uggla, F 1996. Civil Society Work Promoting Democratic Development: What States and Donors Can Do. World Development 24 (10): 1621-1639.
sphere into the public arena. EWLA made the personal, political. In its movement feature, EWLA also nurtured the growth of women’s rights advocates of its own generation and a newer generation. A member shares that many women who occupied forefront positions in Ethiopian women’s organizing had at some point interacted with EWLA either through training received, participation in committee work with EWLA or as paralegal trainees.
Contrary to current day perception that gender equality and women’s rights issues are only the concerns of women, EWLA is also noted to have demonstrated the role Ethiopian men can play in advocating for women’s rights. From the often cited Kifle Wedajo to Ayesanew Kassa and Daniel Bekele, many men are said to have played key roles as associate members, as staff members and campaign allies, in EWLA’s activities, establishing both its broad based and inclusive characteristic.
In reflecting on the historically fragmented nature of women’s movement organizing in Ethiopia, it may be important to pose a question here – had the coming into force of the restrictive CSO law not destabilized EWLA, what else would it have managed to achieve for Ethiopian women specifically, and for the work on gender equality, in its continued growth and expansion?
As depicted through various examples, in its early years EWLA moved from success to success beyond any one’s expectation. However, EWLA also experienced a number of setbacks along the way which can be viewed as contributing to its eventual stagnation. One of such setbacks came in 2001 when the Ministry of Justice suspended EWLA. 19This suspension came on the heels of one of the high-profile cases that they had taken up. Hermella Wossenyeleh, a young woman who had been stalked for eight years and physically violated by a man who claimed he was in love with her, had appealed several times to the police over the span of eight years but the temporary confinements of her assailant did very little to give respite to the young Hermella who continued to face violence.
When EWLA took up this case and followed due process in apprehending her assailant through law enforcement, very little progress was made in rectifying her situation within the justice system. Through the help of EWLA, her case was highly publicized and the Ministry of Justice implicated in the lack of redress experienced by Hermella. The leadership of EWLA was “accused of agitating women and encouraging violence against the government and asked to retract interviews given to various newspapers”. On refusal to do so, the Ministry of Justice suspended EWLA’s operations. Given the overwhelming
support that EWLA had managed to garner in a short number of years, a public outcry followed this suspension within Ethiopia and abroad, culminating in the eventual lifting of the suspension. While according to key members, this juncture tested EWLA, it further heartened the unified stance of its membership base and helped them flourish in unison. However, this particular incident may have marked the beginning of unease
19 Interview with an EWLA Member (A), July 2017.
within government circles at how strong EWLA was growing. Perhaps it can also be viewed as a test to the resilience of the new democratic political culture, which in theory was conceivable, but in its application, was beginning to challenge even those who fought to introduce it.
A second critical juncture that has been cited has to do with the internal politics of EWLA itself, which saw the escalation of tensions in the mid-2000s, concerning its by- laws and transition of leadership. Although EWLA was in its formation and activities a non-partisan organization, some members point to a period in its internal history where it deviated from its non-partisan stance when it came to internal structuring. A particular incident is said to have tested its governance structure to the extent that it created a rift within EWLA into two opposing factions.20 These skirmishes became very personalized and magnified, to the extent that some members began to question their involvement. Herein began the erosion of trust and unity, which some allege contributed greatly to whether or not EWLA would sustain itself undivided through other critical junctures like it had in 2001.
Perhaps the gravest turning point for EWLA came post-2005 national elections when the narrative around civil society organizing and the trust that government had in CSOs began to shift. This shifting narrative coincided with the political upheaval and crisis experienced during and post-elections. To what extent the political culture was redirecting to its inherited ways rooted in isolationism and authoritarianism is not clear. But what was clear was the shrinking goodwill that government had for CSOs, and which manifested in the charities and societies proclamation No. 621/2009 outlining stringent financial measures for organizations working on rights issues in the country. For those like EWLA engaged primarily in the promotion of rights and deriving most of their funding from abroad, it was an absolute and devastating setback.
Those interviewed for this paper share that a lot of effort had been put in negotiating exceptions to the CSO law for women’s rights advocacy groups/organizations during the public hearing sessions in parliament as well as at different forums. However, these negotiations were without any positive outcome and would do little to impact the new chapter of rights organizing in Ethiopia. Any funds21 that EWLA had raised in the interim period when the CSO law was being negotiated would eventually be frozen on the allegation that it was raised from foreign sources after the law was enacted, which limited overseas fundraising to 10%.22
One of the key questions interviewees were asked include what could have been done at the various critical junctures to ensure that EWLA remained stable, but in motion. While most agree that all that could have been done was done to ensure EWLA remained afloat, especially when confronted with one of its most challenging moments – the CSO
20 Interview with an EWLA Member (B) and Associate Member, July 2017.
21 Up to 9.3 million Ethiopian Birr of EWLA’s funds have been frozen since 2009.
22 Interview with an EWLA Member (C), July 2017.
law – a few who feel that the internal friction was a critical juncture with a damaging effect on unity among members, share that the EWLA governance structure should have had better checks and balances to pre-empt the effects of the fall-out.
Additionally, it is indicated that a few members had also felt that EWLA needed to re- register as an Ethiopian resident charity which would allow it to receive foreign funding above the 10% limitation for Ethiopian charities. For an overwhelming majority of members though, that was not negotiable as EWLA would not be EWLA, giving up its identity and the main purpose of its formation – advocating for Ethiopian women’s rights.
Evaluating EWLA’s recent years
If EWLA’s glorious days were rooted in the period between its formation to 2008, then its recent and challenging years could be viewed as the post-2009 period. Given its financial trials severely restricted the activities of its heydays, its visibility quickly diminished. All of a sudden the work that was being performed at the capacity of around seventy plus people within at the organization unit level (not including volunteers and other stakeholders) was reduced to around five. The negative rhetoric about CSOs that prevailed at that point in time may have also contributed to some members shying away from associating with EWLA.
Key members believe that organizations have their own dynamics and life cycle due to various reasons and attribute the lag in EWLA’s activities in recent years to undergoing such a cycle. In her own words, one of the members says, “1995-2005 was EWLA’s years of glory; the good news is the results achieved during those years are there for women to use. Laws are reformed, legal aid services are provided by various institutions and we have learned how to voice concerns on behalf of the voiceless. In that sense EWLA’s legacy is sustained. However, more needs to be done in the area of advocacy and we need to strengthen our action to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment is reality.” 23
Albeit a difficult period that required EWLA to renegotiate the new plains of civil society in the country, some applaud the former Executive Director, Zenaye Tadesse, for ensuring its survival through a tumultuous period, even in a contracted form.
There is and will no doubt always be a tendency to compare EWLA then and now. However, for many of EWLA’s former members, that the organization has managed to continue in its limited capacity is a bold statement in and of itself, where the path of least resistance would have been to close it down. Perhaps EWLA should not then be judged by its glory days and rather by its unwavering commitment to the women of Ethiopia as it chose to maintain its identity and continue delivering its services and undertaking its work until the dawn of a more conducive environment.
23 Interview with an EWLA Member (B), July 2017.
Key Lessons for Ethiopian Women’s Organizing
As an organization that demonstrated the capacity of Ethiopian women to mobilize and organize in contemporary Ethiopia, there are some key lessons that can be drawn from the EWLA experience:
- The role that passion and conviction play in such work is undeniable. Despite sustaining many wins, the EWLA women were also brandished as attempting to destroy cultural values that sanctify the family. The antidote to such a backlash then could only be passion and commitment to a calling that was larger than each individual in the EWLA unit. Individual conviction then is seen as the pillar that sustains long-haul organizing;
- The impact that evidence based advocacy had on altering the Ethiopian legal system as well as fixed mind-sets where the issues of women’s rights in a patriarchal society were concerned, cannot be emphasized enough;
- Acknowledging that the work on promoting gender equality is a long-haul journey full of challenges is a must, given that the culture has deep rooted attitudes. Hence, another key lesson that EWLA has demonstrated is the necessity to forge strategies for every action to be undertaken;
- The necessity to maintain a non-partisan approach; not only on paper but also in each and every activity;
- Ensuring that strong mechanisms for internal controls are in place, including checks and balances in governance structures, conflict resolution mechanisms, etc. The fast growth of EWLA did not give it the luxury of taking adequate time to put such mechanisms in place as the demands for its service were many;
- The importance of researching areas that have not been addressed in the many issues that impact the rights of women and working on bringing those to the fore, instead of replicating what others have done and attempting to recreate the wheel;
- Last but not least, and perhaps more importantly, the key lesson shared by interviewees is the capacity for Ethiopian women to achieve a lot when we collaborate and trust one another. Giving space for people to make mistakes but ensuring that expensive mistakes are not made.
Outlook for EWLA
Despite the environment in which EWLA is currently operating, the outlook according to past and present members is quite hopeful. EWLA is currently undergoing changes in its strategic direction to better cope with the social, political as well as economic dynamics of the country. Most importantly, EWLA is strengthening its overall capacity through devising effective and efficient local resource mobilization efforts. In this aspect, it is currently engaged in diversifying its membership base/constituency, strengthening its local fund and friend-raising efforts. 24
Since the highly turbulent days, EWLA has now grown to 30 staff members and has still maintained its six branch offices in Adama, Hawassa, Assosa, Bahir Dar, Gambela and Dire Dawa. These offices are still at the service of poor women providing free legal aid service in their respective regions. Additionally, there are 53 volunteer committees (more than 260 paralegals) who provide free legal aid service for women residing in rural kebeles.
Even though EWLA has more than 200 members (regular, associate and corporate) the very active ones are few and amount to around 50. In order to alleviate this challenge of active membership engagement, EWLA is undertaking efforts to bring the younger generation through recruiting university students in general and law school students and fresh graduates in particular. Its main locus of attention however, is the continued provision of free legal aid service and local resource mobilization (both funds and friends).
According to its current Executive Director, since the enforcement of the CSO proclamation, EWLA has been going through the challenge of fund constraint, but through time, it has been taking lessons and identifying opportunities, untapped local potentials to make it move forward progressively. “EWLA believes that there is success through challenge; actually, it is the sign of its strength to keep on serving women in this stringent legal environment where many CSOs are closing out every year. Thus, in the future, EWLA will keep on digging new ways in the country to sustain its program executions and of
course to revive its vibrant status.”25
Although former and current EWLA members are hopeful that the organization will undergo a revival, if not a renewal, it remains that the next leg of the journey requires extensive work in ‘fund and friend’ raising, to borrow a phrase from the current EWLA leadership. While looking back is a necessity to take stock of what worked and what has not worked well, moving forward is not an option. EWLA remains an unparalleled Ethiopian success story in women’s independent organizing, and in the kind of contribution that strengthened civil society organizations can make towards a country’s democratization and political culture transformation process.
With Ethiopia in a period of huge transformation that has altered the realities of many people in very different ways, strong civil society organizations are in dire demand to support government in alleviating some of the social challenges that come with modernity and fast-paced growth. The context that EWLA is currently operating in is
24 Interview with an EWLA Member (D), August 2017.
radically different from the EWLA of yester years, necessitating the organization’s quick revitalization to serve Ethiopian women and foster gender equality amidst the demands and challenges of globalization that Ethiopia is fast getting pulled into. While the approaches and methods of re-invigorating EWLA are as heterogeneous as the needs of Ethiopian women, the bottom line according to EWLA’s current leadership is that “EWLA is promoting a cause which it believes is a national agenda (the issue of women), which in this regards needs the collaboration of all stakeholders (government, private sector, its members and its volunteers).”
If the main objective of this paper has been to document the story of a dynamic women’s rights organization, then its concluding call for action would be for citizens, especially Ethiopian women, to pay heed to the rights EWLA has enabled us to enjoy, and pay it forward by supporting the strengthening of the organization. We owe it to our daughters, to the future generation and to ensuring that an Ethiopian women’s movement does not continue being defined as inexistent and fragmented.
Burgess, Gemma. A Hidden History: Women ‘s Activism in Ethiopia. Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 14, No. 3 July 2013.
Endalcachew Bayeh, Human Rights in Ethiopia: An Assessment on the Law and Practice of Women’s Rights. Humanities and Social Sciences 2015.
Hadenius, A and Uggla, F 1996. Civil Society Work Promoting Democratic Development: What States and Donors Can Do. World Development 24 (10): 1621-1639.
Women’s Affair Wing of the Prime Minister’s Office. Activities & Vision – Ethiopian Women’s Movement in the 20th Century. 1993.
Listed in no particular order or relation to the footnotes.
Rahel Zerihun, Former Member and Former Communications Manager, EWLA Aster Birke, Associate Member, EWLA
Meaza Ashenafi, Founding Board Member & Executive Director (Former), EWLA Maria Munir, Founding Board Member
Mahdere Paulos, Member & Executive Director (Former), EWLA Meron Aragaw, Member & Executive Director (Current), EWLA