Election of first woman to presidency has raised hopes among women’s rights groups for more gender equality in Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – The election of Sahle-Work Zewde as Ethiopia‘s first female president has been enthusiastically greeted in Ethiopia and beyond, raising hopes among advocates for gender equality in the conservative country.
The 68-year-old was unanimously approved by the Ethiopian parliament on Thursday to replace Mulatu Teshome, who resigned unexpectedly a day earlier.
While the position of president is largely ceremonial, it carries important symbolic weight and social influence.
Following Zewde’s appointment, congratulatory messages arrived from the African Union (AU), the United Nations and the European Union, as well as other international organisations and leaders around the world.
The softly-spoken, veteran technocrat has worked in diplomacy for more than three decades.
Born in the capital Addis Ababa, Zewde attended university in France. After graduating, she served as Ethiopia’s ambassador to France, Djibouti, Senegal and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc in East Africa.
Prior to her appointment as president, she was the UN’s top official at the AU. She is fluent in English and French as well as Amharic, Ethiopia’s official working language.
Abebe Aynete, a senior researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies think-tank, said Zewde’s experience will make her a competent spokesperson for the country’s political reforms on the international stage.
“As a person who knows the Ethiopian system inside out, Zewde, as president, will offer more continuity in terms of policy but will have her own priorities, including female empowerment,” Aynete told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that Zewde has become the first female Ethiopian president will be a great sign towards achieving gender equality. I consider it as a sort of a glass ceiling being broken down, showing females can also reach positions of high profile,” said Aynete.
‘Positive first step’
Zewde’s appointment to the presidency is not an isolated phenomenon.
The administration of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which assumed office in April, has appointed numerous women to influential positions that have been traditionally reserved for men.
Earlier this month, Abiy filled half of his cabinet with women, including Ethiopia’s first female Defence Minister Aisha Mohammed.
Muferiat Kamil was appointed to lead the newly-created Ministry of Peace, responsible for the police and domestic intelligence agencies.