Ethiopia is changing rapidly under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with women now wielding enormous power in a country where they have mostly been confined to traditional roles, writes BBC Tigrinya’s Hana Zeratsyon.

Ethiopians like to say they were ruled by Queen Sheba in biblical times – something they take great pride in, yet the reality is that the Horn of Africa state is a deeply male-dominated society.

As gender and law consultant Hilina Birhanu puts it: “Patriarchy is our society’s mother tongue. We learn from early to look down on women.”

This is borne out by some of the often-heard proverbs in languages spoken by Ethiopians, including “a house built by a woman does not have a base”, “a woman’s country is her husband and her livelihood is her character” and “as a soul is in its creator, a woman is in her master”.

Will this Ethiopian girl be able to do things her mother and grandmother couldn’t?
Women, who make up about half the population of 102.5 million, are largely confined to traditional roles, especially in rural areas where they spend much of their time at home, looking after their children, fetching wood and water from rivers, and weeding and transporting cereals.

Statistics compiled by the Ethiopian government and other bodies show that:

Nearly 25% of women leave most decisions to their husbands
Almost 50% have experienced violence from a partner
Less than 20% of girls enrol for secondary education
More than 40% are married before they turn 18
Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to promote women to powerful posts has been widely welcomed, with rights groups hoping that the new government will follow it up by unveiling major initiatives in the coming months to improve the lives of ordinary women.

Mr Abiy, 42, has given half of the government’s 20 ministerial posts to women. This is in contrast to the four posts women held in the much larger cabinet of his predecessor, Hailemariam Dessalegn.

Ethiopia and Rwanda are now the only African states to have equal gender representation in the cabinet.

Mr Abiy has also appointed renowned human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi – whose efforts to tackle the underage marriage of girls formed the basis of an Angelina Jolie-produced Hollywood film in 2014 – as the country’s most senior judge.

In two other moves, communications expert Billene Aster Seyoum has been appointed as the prime minister’s press secretary, while former UN official Sahle-Work Zewde was elected by the male-dominated parliament as president.

Tribute to mother
Although Ms Sahle-Work’s post is largely ceremonial, she represents Ethiopia at some international events, boosting the profile of women and highlighting the need to increase female representation in other African governments. She is currently Africa’s only female head of state.

Sahle-Work Zewde is the ceremonial head of state, while Abiy Ahmed (r) holds the political power
Rediet Kefale – a member of the Yellow movement, which campaigns for the rights of women – told the BBC: “We have never seen women in power like this. It is new to our eyes. Whatever the post, it is a great move to develop women’s leadership.”

The first hint that Mr Abiy intended to champion women’s rights came in his inaugural address as prime minister in April, when he took the unprecedented step of paying tribute to his late mother in parliament.

“My mother is counted among the many kind, innocent, and hardworking Ethiopian mothers… Though she is not alive, I would love to thank her,” he said.

“Furthermore, I would love to thank my wife who took my mother’s vision to help me and substituted my mother,” he added, as the male-majority parliament broke into rapturous applause.

Minister of peace
Furthermore, the nation’s – and the prime minister’s – security has been placed in the hands of women for the first time, with Mr Abiy giving ex-construction minister Aisha Mohammed the defence portfolio and former parliamentary speaker Muferiat Kamil the newly created peace ministry, which covers the police and the powerful intelligence agencies.

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