In 2018, Ethiopia appointed it’s first & Africa’s only serving female head of state. It also got the first female Supreme Court president. A female politician was now a chairperson of National Election Board. It even created a brand new ministry, named it Ministry of Peace & handed the leadership over to a woman. Out of 20 cabinet members, 10 of them were women. A notably male dominated post, the Defense Ministry, was also to be lead by a woman for the first time.
Ethiopians rejoiced, the rest of the world applauded and media covered this change with flying compliments. Representation mattered. This was seen as something that can level the gender field. Having a 50% women led cabinet was impressive by any standard since the global average for female government ministers is 18.3 percent . More than a dozen countries have no women cabinet members at all.
President Sahle-Work Zewde said in her first parliamentarian address vowed to be a voice for women — famously telling MPs that if they thought she was talking too much about women, that she had only just begun. Not only was this move symbolic, many believed it would open the door for gender parity. Who wouldn’t want that?
Mrs. Ashenafi, the Supreme Court President, was the founder and executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. A woman in a high court could do wonders. So this too was welcomed as a much needed step to move Ethiopian women’s agenda forward.
About two years into this gender reform, the country found itself in a political turmoil. The Prime Minister, a 44 year old Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was behind these gender reforms, announced a start of what would be a deadly conflict. This was followed by a complete black out of an entire state, Tigray, where this armed conflict was happening. The state housed over 6 million people. Women, children, elderly were trapped in a a highly secretive war operation. It is a well known fact that women pay dearly during armed conflicts especially a conflict of this kind were absolutely no media was allowed in.
Pressure was mounting on the The Prime Minister to ease up the black out. As the state opened up ever so slightly, horrific stories of war crimes started surfacing. Rape being on the top of the list.
The stories were gruesome to say the list. The Prime Minister defended his “operation” that happened in total darkness. “No women & children” he said “were harmed during this operation”. The families of the people of the state that were attacked begged to differ.
Most accounts detailed rape cases of Ethiopian woman by Ethiopian & a foreign army. Ethiopian Soldiers expressed their concern to Reuters. A soldier who refused to be identified said women were being raped, after the city fell to federal forces. The Prime Minister had allied with the neighboring country to defeat his political rivals. In doing so, he seemed to have no say in controlling the erratic behavior of the soldiers.
On an audio account, a witness told a reporter how “At the beginning of the war, soldiers would have their way with any women they wanted but after they were told to be careful of AIDS, they started raping little girls whom they believed to be safe from this disease”.
Desperate for answers, concerned citizens turned to the gender reformed government & its women “Leaders”. Surely they are here to speak for their sisters, mothers and children. They said so. The world thought so.
Days, weeks, and months passed. The ladies in high places chose the the age old technic of avoiding responsibilities related to rape & women grievance — Silence. There was no direct or indirect addressing of such horrific victims account. There was no urging of an immediate investigation into the matter. There was no expression of absolute outrage. There was no message to families of alleged victims to stay calm or that they are with them.
The last time the Press secretary mentioned rape was back in 2018 - right after she was appointed. The post was of a generic lip-service type she had come to be known for.
Four months into this war, The President decided to travel to the war torn region. Part of her photo-op visit was to include a stop at a hospital were rape victims were also being treated. At the entrance, the President was politely asked by doctors and other stuff members to not go in with military men who accompanied her. The victims were traumatized & the sight of men in uniforms was additional trauma. The president took a personal offense to being morally lectured. So she refused. She demanded that the military men be allowed in with her. The hospital stuff reported that on catching sight of the soldiers, the victims began screaming, crying and shaking with fear. The president had to remove herself from the spot immediately since no amount of comforting or assurance could calm the victims down. She left — leaving the victims a little worse than she found them.
Her office then released statements & pictures. Showing her interacting attentively & kindly with locals. This would surely get her boss the good PR he very much needed. Still no mention of rape allegations. Continued silence. The president warned at the beginning of her term that she will exhaust the men by speaking up for women issues. Two years into her seat & tested with real life challenge, the world could see she has no intention of delivering on that promise.
It has become obvious now that the ladies in position of influence and power in Ethiopia have chosen to politicize the suffering of women. They too have decided to utilize the same weapon of covering up rape allegations just like men in history had. If you don’t talk about it, it has not happened. Some of their supporters believe them. Many more others are left wondering if this gender reform was genuine or if it was implemented merely to strengthen the power of the men behind this reform.
Amidst such horrifying moment, they all found time to stay connected on social media discussing everything but the war and war crimes. The Supreme Court President posted a glossy picture of herself with other women “leaders” of the country in the President’s office. She said she was so proud. Proud of the recognition the president had secured from Forbes as the only African woman to be listed “The World’s Most Powerful Women 2020” were the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris , Stacey Abrams, Sheikh Hasina Wajed & Rania Nashar were featured. The picture was clean. The office was modern. The ladies were smiling. On the pictures they share and topics they chose to discuss — Their male colleagues don’t need to be nudged, everything is under control & all is well in the land of the feminists.