By Michael G. Behailu,

The buzz was hard to miss, when Sahlework Zewdie, a prior ambassador, was appointed as the new President of Ethiopia. Rarely have I seen such a political uproar (a positive one) in the country. In a parliamentary government like ours, the seat of the president is rather ceremonial. And yet, its symbolic meaning can transcend that, and when it’s a woman, even more so.

Now, here one can say why did you say ‘when it’s a woman, even more so’, and argue they are as much capable of filling the seat as any man. The use of that text however is not to belittle the ability of competency of women with men. Nor it is to undermine their potential. Instead, it is to highlight that women in our country, as well as the rest of the world, go through more obstacles than men and yet they can and have come out triumphant. Politics, over the centuries, has been a sector where men only have been the main actors. Women played almost insignificant roles as compared to men, due to various reasons.

Here in Ethiopia, the story is the same. Although our political situation has changed through time, from a monarchial system to dictatorship to democratic independence, one thing that remained the same is the predominance of men in all political systems. Women, despite being seen in some instances as beacons of hope for their future generations of female political figure aspirators, their glittering torches merely transcend their own life-times.

To back this up, we need not go far behind in the history books. It was in 1957 that Senedu Gebru joined the Parliament as the first woman member. That should have been the trigger point for women to flood the political arena and become a driving force. However, despite the increased participation of them in the Parliament and other positions, their role in key government and decision-making areas remains unsatisfactory. The reasons behind can be attributed to many things.

The main reason can be pointed out as lack of opportunity given to women. Giving high level positional responsibilities to women is not seen in a positive way. Our society has failed to see women as leaders and change makers. Because of that women are not given the chance to work in areas where they can show visible strong leadership power and become influential. This, not only diminished the probability of strong and enable women to the forefront of power but also struck fear and self-doubt within those women who, if are given the opportunity, will definitely succeed.
A couple of years back I heard there was a high position officer leaving his post in one of our big corporations, the name of which shall remain anonymous. The person in charge of appointing the vacant job came up with few names, three of which, were women and frontrunners. And yet, all of them rejected the offer and chose to stay where they were. Because they were afraid of the pressure it brings and the criticism it yields. The position, as usual, fell in the palms of a male candidate. Now, imagine taking a position in the political arena, where everything and anything is watched, scrutinized, criticized and sometimes misunderstood. The pressure to perform is high and for women it is higher. We are in a position where we are ready to drag the names of women, who we already presumptuously assume that they are going to underperform, through mud to showcase that women aren’t cut out to the ‘tough’ job. We are more excited just by seeing half of our ministers are women, when in reality we should be really excited by the fact what those elected ministers can bring to their position and the people they serve.

The appointment of Sahle Work, for me has one critical achievement. It brings a psychological breakthrough in a patriarchal society, where we assume women are made not for political positions but mostly to roles of motherhood and other ‘low-level’ responsibilities. It will test our resilience and patience on how we regard the success and failure of our new president through her time in the office while answering the most pertinent question, are we ready to see and accept a woman at a high-level political office?

On the flipside of this, it is imperative to understand that how we play out all these will also have an effect on our country’s future. Children will grow up knowing that they can make it to the top and become an influential and political figure. After all, children can’t be what they can’t see.
While concluding, we are responsible for making sure that the excitement that was created during the appointment of our President and indeed our ministers, surpasses beyond our generation and is more than a milestone in history. We are responsible for creating a political environment where women are constant participators and decision makers and make sure Senedu Gebru and Sahle Work’s achievements are stepping stones to achieve even more successes for our women.