Since October 2018, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a nation home to more than 100 million people, has been managed under the political leadership of President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman elected as head of state in that country. Even though women have been previously elected to the highest office of other African nations, geopolitical analysts familiar with Ethiopia have pointed out that President Zewde’s appointment is groundbreaking for two reasons. First of all, the Federal Parliamentary Assembly voted unanimously in her favor; second, Ethiopia is known as a politically conservative jurisdiction, but this seems to be turning around.
President Zewde is a stylish 69-year-old woman who has a long diplomatic track record. She was born in the Ethiopian capital as the eldest of four female siblings from a middle class family. She studied natural science in a French university, but her affinity for foreign languages and public relations resulted in many diplomatic appointments, including to the African Union and the United Nations. To a great extent, President Zewde is a technocrat whose expertise is in development and strategic foreign relations.
Since Ethiopia is a parliamentary democracy, President Zewde does not occupy the most politically powerful office; that would be Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Nevertheless, she has already made strong recommendations with regard to gender equality in the country. Half of the cabinet selected by PM Ahmed consists of female ministers. This is part of an ongoing reformist movement, but President Zewde has made it clear that empowering Ethiopian women is very high on her presidential agenda. To this effect, the mother of two was selected to speak at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, where she reminded attendees that 40 percent of Ethiopian girls get married before the age of 18.
One of the salient points in President Zewde’s agenda is directly related to her speech in Vancouver. Specifically, she believes that a lack of educational opportunities for Ethiopian girls is stifling their potential, and this is something that exacerbates the social issue of child marriage. President Zewde believes that grassroots activities such as promoting education must be undertaken in Ethiopia before the vast gender gap can be narrowed.