Serving as a woman MP in Ethiopia: the challenges, ‘outcomes’ and beyond

Dr Meheret Ayenew and Tsedey Mekonnen discuss the rapid increase in the proportion of female MPs in Ethiopia in a blog to mark International Women’s Day 

In 1954 the first, and at that time only, woman MP in Ethiopia, the late Honorable Mrs. Sinedu Gebru, announced to Parliament, ‘You will see one day, after some years, there will be so many women in Parliament!’ and it turns out she was right. In the last 20 years the proportion of women MPs has increased from 2% to nearly 40%.


The Honorable Mrs Sinedu Gebru. Image courtesy of the authors

Ethiopia is an old and conservative country, where traditionally women have not been treated as equal to men when it comes to important social and economic rights and benefits. In recent years, though, our Parliament has witnessed a huge increase in the representation of women elected members among its ranks, as indicated below.

Composition of Male and Female Members of the Ethiopian Parliament 1995-2015

No. Election Year Total Number of Candidates Distribution of Parliamentary Seats % age of Women Members
Male Female
1. 1995 2,871 526 11 2.01
2. 2000 505 42 7.68
3. 2005 1,594 410 116 21.21
4. 2010 2,188 395 152 27.79
5. 2015 1,828 335 212 38.76

Source: House of Representatives (HoR), Ethiopia, 2016.

The increasing representation of women MPs is not an Ethiopian-only phenomenon with Rwanda (63.8%), Senegal (42.7%), South Africa (41.7%) and Namibia (41.3%) as obvious examples (IPU, 2016). The question of whether the presence of a high number of women MPs in parliament can be a contributory factor to the advancement of women’s rights and championing of their causes is relevant to several African countries, offering the possibility of some revealing cross-national comparisons.

Whither elections and parliamentary democracy in contemporary Ethiopia?

The position of women MPs can only be understood with some context. Since coming to power in the early 1990s, the current ruling EPRDF has conducted five formal elections in a little more than 25 years – quite an achievement when compared with the track record of its two predecessors, namely, the Imperial regime and the Derg.  However, the electoral landscape has been dominated by a single party, and little or no headway has been achieved in instituting multi-party competitive politics because the ruling party has always been the winner in all the elections, often with a landslide.  Simply put, Ethiopia is effectively a one-party state today, as it was when the EPRDF came to power in the early 1990s.  Given this political culture, it can be argued that mere numbers by themselves can be deceptive, serving either as symbolic expressions of representation or facades to lend legitimacy to the system rather than genuine tools of democratic representation and participation. It is against this backdrop that the increasing number of Ethiopian women MPs and their contribution to gender empowerment and equality MPs must be considered.

In the caricature of Ethiopian politics, democracy and its basic tenets, including freedom of speech and association, free press and multi-partyism, are rare commodities. Despite these challenges, however, there are more women legislators than ever before. How can one explain this phenomenon? Can this be explained by the current deliberate party decision of a target of 40% representation of women in legislative posts? If yes, then what are the drivers? Is the Government is interested in numbers to comply with continental and international conventions that urge governments to show their commitments to gender equality by increasing women MPs in parliament, such as, for example, African Union’s call for 50% representation of women at all levels of political decision making positions by 2015? Or is it a homegrown decision by the Government to win the support of women by encouraging  more women to political leaderships and impress upon donors and the international community? What is the likelihood that such a track record can be sustained in an undemocratic and top down political culture?  All these questions deserve answers in Ethiopia’s bewildering and complex politics under the ruling EPRDF.

Ethiopian Women MPs… what is there to gain in an increasing number? 

In interviews and focus group discussions, we found that Ethiopian women MPs claimed their increasing number has helped to give prominence to women issues and led to legislation and policies supportive of their causes.  To back this up, some women MPs cited their advocacy and lobbying work in the enactment of the family law, which recognized the right of women to paid leave from work before, at, and after giving birth. Another success story they talked about was the right of women in rural Ethiopia to be entitled to secure land registration certificates in their own names, which reversed a long-standing practice of recognizing rights to farmland in the name of husbands or male-headed households. These and other claims of success are impressive but must be treated with caution because it is difficult to draw a cause and effect relationship as to whether these hard won victories are attained thanks to the hard work of women MPs or whether they are dispensations of a populist party to boost up its image and public support (or most likely both).

Ethiopian women MPs talked highly of their 17 women-member caucus in Parliament.  The group is credited with strong advocacy work to promote girls’ education in the nation’s colleges and universities as well as their vigorous efforts to build the capacity of female members of Parliament through further education and training opportunities. Another claim has been the hard work the caucus put into elevating the status of women as leaders and members of important parliamentary standing committees.  In addition, encouraging women MPs to actively participate in budget debates to ensure that gender is mainstreamed in key pro- poor and growth sectors, including education, health and infrastructure budget allocations is also cited as another success story.  However, assertions about the influential role of women MPs must be considered against a background of very small number of women in high leadership and policy making positions in other branches of government.

Despite the gains in legislative positions for women, the number of women in executive bodies of the  Government is very small. For example, women remain a very tiny minority in cabinet in the current Government: there were only 3 women cabinet positions out of the total 30 in the recently restructured and reshuffled government following the recent disturbances in the country. When asked by a woman MP why there were so few women ministers, the Prime Minister gave an unconvincing response by saying that that educated and experienced women were not coming forward for lack of interest, and were thus missing from the pool of candidates for such positions. Unsurprisingly, not many people found this likely.

A better reason is needed to explain why there are a significant number of women in parliament, but a small number of them in high decision-making and leadership positions in other branches of government. In interviews with some women MPs, it was suggested that the quota system put in place by the party (stipulating that a predetermined proportion of party candidates for election should be women) had contributed to the high number. This resonates with the success of quotas for women elsewhere (Sadie, 2005; Caul, 1999). It sounds a plausible explanation because in a country like Ethiopia, where elections are more predictable, fair and free competition is almost absent and the opposition is feeble, the ruling party can use its domineering position to increase the number of women MPs to secure public support. It is a pity that so far they seem to be using women MPs as unwitting pawns for their ends rather than putting them in positions of executive power.



Sinedu Gebru. Image courtesy of the authors


  • Dr Meheret Ayenew is a leading scholar in Ethiopia and Executive Director of the Forum for Social Studies and Tsedey Mekonnen is a Research Assistant as FSS.  The authors are working on an international DFID-ESRC funded project – Parliaments, Public Engagement and Poverty reduction – coordinated by SOAS and Hansard Society:
  •  To write for the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures blog, please contact us



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