Ethiopia appoints first female president Sahle-Work Zewde

Ethiopia’s parliament has made Sahle-Work Zewde the country’s first female president. And while the role is largely ceremonial, her appointment carries power in what it signifies.

Sahle-Work, an experienced diplomat, is the first female head of state in Ethiopia’s modern history. In June, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Sahle-Work as special representative to the African Union and head of the U.N. Office to the African Union — the first woman in the role. She was previously director-general of the U.N. Office at Nairobi and held a range of diplomatic posts, including Ethiopia’s ambassador to France and Djibouti.

Parliament accepted the resignation of Mulatu Teshome — who had served as president since 2013 — and named Sahle-Work to replace him.

In remarks in Parliament after she took her oath of office, Sahle-Work emphasized the importance of respecting women and the need to build a “society that rejects the oppression of women.” She also promised to work for peace and unity in the country.

She added that those who think she has already talked too much about women should expect even more.

Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in April, has initiated a whirlwind of changes, releasing political prisoners, inviting back exiles and making peace with the country’s chief opponent, Eritrea, after two decades of hostilities.

Abiy has also publicly declared the need to promote women in what has been a largely patriarchal, conservative society.

Sahle-Work, 68, becomes modern Ethiopia’s first female head of state, though in the country’s history, there have been empresses who wielded great power.

Sehin Teferra, co-founder of the feminist Setaweet movement, said the appointment is important because gender equality in Ethi­o­pia is generally “abysmal,” with “very high levels of violence against women.”

“We are always in the top of the gender inequality index, and we do very badly in terms of representation,” she said. However, she added, the government now is making a powerful statement with the new cabinet and with this appointment.

“I think appointing one or two women would not have made the change, but with this critical mass, when you have 10 [ministers] out of 20, then yes, I think it will do a lot in terms of addressing people’s attitudes,” Sehin said.

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