Remarks by Meaza Ashenafi


Statement by Meaza Ashenafi

Executive Director, Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association

Statement upon receiving the Prize

I appreciate and value greatly that The Hunger Project, an internationally renowned and highly regarded organization, has seen some significance in my endeavors to help Ethiopian women organize themselves to improve their economic, social and political status to award me its coveted prize.

Considering the eminent status and vast contributions that other awardees of The Hunger Project have made to advance human welfare, I feel particularly humbled that my contribution in the struggle for the rights of women in my country has received the recognition that is bestowed upon me this evening.

I am also happy and feel privileged that I share The Hunger Project’s recognition with my African sister, Sara Longwe, who has contributed much to the struggle against discrimination in Africa and particularly in her country Zambia. This joint recognition underscores the essential unity of the struggle for women’s rights in Africa for I believe that the general patterns of discrimination against women in Africa are similar.

Some observers might ask why The Hunger Project, which is dedicated to fighting for global elimination of hunger, would appreciate and recognize the struggle of women against traditional and legal discrimination. A readily available answer to this is to recall that promoting the rights of women is one of The Hunger Project’s objectives. I hasten to add however that tonight’s recognition goes beyond a mere reference to these objectives. I believe it underscores the often-missed linkage between hunger and women’s deprivation of rights. Hunger is often born out of extreme poverty or the collapse of the food distribution system, and those who bear its brunt most are women and children. Where women are deprived in particular of their potential contribution to increasing the supply of food or are deprived equal role with men in other spheres of life, hunger is a frequent phenomenon and its effects more devastating.

No one has articulated better this linkage than Ms. Joan Holmes, the President of The Hunger Project, who in a recent testimony before the Congressional Women’s Caucus stated, “In countries with the persistence of hunger, women bear full responsibility for key issues in ending hunger: [improving] family health, nutrition, sanitation and increasing family income. Yet women are systematically denied the information, education and freedom of action they need to fulfill these responsibilities.”

Before I close my remarks, I would like to avail myself of the opportunity of this occasion to recognize my mother, Askalech Tegegn, who is in the audience. I owe all that I am today to my mother, who, although of modest education, inculcated in myself and my siblings the value of education, discipline and hard work. I also want to introduce my brother, Gashaw Ashenafi, also in the audience, who, in the interaction of sibling rivalry that had also an element of traditional male chauvinism, provided my first experience of asserting my rights and space in the family. I must say I have disabused him any notion of male chauvinism. He is now a nice guy. Straightening him was my first victory in the struggle.

I would like to thank sincerely the Board, the President and the staff of The Hunger Project for the award it has given me-an award which gives recognition to the cause of women’s struggle for securing their fundamental human and democratic rights and also for recognizing the nexus between women’s struggle for their rights and the elimination of hunger in Africa.

Thank you.

The Hunger Project’s Policy Forum - Women’s Leadership and the Future of Africa

Statement by Mrs. Meaza Ashenafi, 2003 Africa Prize Laureate

African societies everywhere face the debilitating scourge of poverty. No amount of statistics or description can capture the deep and pervasive reality of this poverty. It is even more difficult to imagine the lives of African women in those conditions.

Sub-Sahara Africa is the lowest income-region in the world. The rate of poverty (based on an income poverty line of a dollar a day) is close to 50 percent. The corresponding rates for South Asia, East Asia and Latin America are 40, 15 and 12 percent respectively. These figures hide however more than they reveal the impact of poverty on African women, for although African women constitute 70 percent of those below the poverty line, none of the statistical indicators used to track the incidence and severity of income poverty are gender sensitive.

All over Africa discrimination against women is deeply embedded. Traditional and modern statutory laws contain patently obvious discriminations against women.

While there may be some significant national particularities, roles assigned to men and women in Africa are largely culturally determined. For example, despite the significant role played by women in food production (women farmers produce 80 percent of Africa’s food) customary and traditional practices in many African countries prevent women from inheriting and controlling land and other property. Women’s access to education continues to be curtailed by gender biased personal and institutional attitudes, heavy domestic work, forced and early marriages. Only seventy-nine girls are enrolled for every hundred boys in primary schools. The gender gap is even wider at secondary and tertiary educational levels.

Traditional attitudes also limit the use of contraceptive methods. This has led to high levels of infant, child and maternal mortality which are greater in Africa than in any other continent. In sub-Saharan Africa 157 children out of 1000 die before the age of 5. And 90 out of 1000 die before the age of 1.

The conditions of women in Ethiopia are similar to those in other African countries. Women in Ethiopia are also victims of harmful traditional practices. 85 percent of women undergo the practice of female genital mutilation. In the northern part of the country, children at the age of 8 and 10 are given in marriage. And in the south and western parts young girls are abducted into marriage. Inheriting the wife of a deceased’s brother is a common practice in some Ethiopian communities. Exchanging children for marriage among fathers and brothers and polygamous marriage are also practiced in several communities. Domestic violence is prevalent with women having no significant social or legal redress.

Traditional attitudes and discriminatory practices are combined to limit women’s participation in public life. There is only one woman minister in a cabinet of twenty-five. And women constitute only 7 percent of the Federal Parliament’s membership.

However heavy the burden of women in Africa has been so far, the future is not all too bleak. In fact there is a ray of hope that the conditions of African women will improve. The challenge that faces African women today is to speed up the rate of change urgently called by the magnitude and seriousness of the problem. This challenge involves changing societal attitudes that underpin traditional discriminatory practices as well as eliminating discriminatory laws and struggling to ensure their enforcement.

There are those who say that in this struggle changing laws that reflect deeply held societal values and prejudices will not advance in any meaningful way the rights of African women and that legal reforms should play a secondary role to changing traditional values. Those of us who are committed to the struggle for removing discrimination against women in Africa believe that we should pursue a double pronged strategy: fight for the elimination of discriminatory and harmful traditional practices while at the same time mobilizing for and advocating legal reforms.

Many African countries are showing increasing acceptance of modernizing and democratic values on gender issues. In their constitutions and laws nearly all of them express commitment to eliminating discrimination against women and to uplifting women’s economic and social status. More than one-third of these countries have adopted policies that guide the objective of mainstreaming gender in all spheres of life.

Increased improvements are being reported in school enrolment of girls, adult literacy programs and health service coverage. In several African parliaments women’s representation has reached the critical mass of 30 percent as called for by the Beijing Platform of Action. The most unprecedented symbolic step with respect to women’s participation in public life is the recent decision taken by the Assembly of the Heads of States and Governments of the African Union to reserve 50 percent of the Union’s Commissioner portfolio to women. We hope this benchmark will stimulate similar action at the national level in all African countries.

Changes for the better are also happening in my country Ethiopia. The current Constitution of Ethiopia, in the drafting of which I participated in the humble role of legal advisor, guarantees the economic and social rights of women and incorporates a commitment to removing traditional practices harmful to women as well as to eliminating all forms of discriminatory practices. Also taking note of the accumulated legacy of historical discrimination against women, the Constitution provides for affirmative and remedial measures so as to enable women to participate and compete on equal basis with men in all spheres of life.

I owe my initiation into becoming an advocate for the affirmation and protection of human rights in my country when I was working as a staff lawyer for the Ethiopian Constitution Drafting Commission. Prior to that, I had worked briefly as a judge and some cases that were brought to my bench had made me aware to what extent some important aspects of the law were biased against women, and that women were suffering from the lack of enforcement of some laws from which they could have benefited. It was however during my service in the Commission, where I was responsible for advising its Human Rights Committee, that I got exposed to international human rights instruments and the constitutions of several democratic countries which bolstered my knowledge of human rights issues and made me believe that we could promote the protection of women’s rights in our country if we could create an advocacy non-governmental organization. Together with a respected woman lawyer, who was a member of the Commission and who had extensive experience as a Supreme Court justice, we floated the idea of creating a women lawyers’ association. We talked to several other women lawyers, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and with twenty-seven members, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association was established in October 1995.

Since its establishment eight years ago, our association’s membership has shown a significant growth. Altogether, we have a core membership of 400 and a large number of active supporters.

At its establishment, our association gave priority to the following challenges: (1) to study and spread the findings of our studies on traditional harmful practices affecting women and to promote the abandonment or reform of such practices; (2) to promote reforms of discriminatory laws by undertaking studies, convening conferences and lobbying members of government and parliament; (3) to provide counseling and legal aid to women victims of injustice and violence; and (4) to represent women in court in cases that may set precedents in favor of women.

As a result of our lobbying effort, reforms were made in family, pension and criminal laws and maternity rights protection. We have taken cases of abduction and have obtained conviction of abductors. We have also encouraged networking among women’s organizations at the national and regional levels.

We have plans to redouble our efforts in eliminating traditional harmful practices. We intend to raise awareness and to persuade parliament to prohibit female genital mutilation. While we welcome some of the reforms in the criminal law, we will continue our endeavors to secure more changes towards giving full protection of women from violence and protection of their reproductive rights.

All in all, we can only say that our struggle has begun but has not ended. We owe our limited success to officials in our government and parliament, especially women members of parliament, who support our cause. We also have enthusiastic support from our fellow citizens-men and women. This support was tangibly manifested when the Minister of Justice banned our association for no other reason than that we dared publicly to criticize him for failing to take appropriate action for a case we had submitted to him. We showed our mettle by refusing to accept the Minister’s decision and we turned that brief episode for educating our public on the precious right to freedom of association.

Thank you all for your attention.