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Red Roads Over Green Hills: Contemplating Gender Equality in Ethiopia

Ethiopia WEO

The state of the roads in Ethiopia’s Oromia region (a western region bordering South Sudan) are not for the faint of heart – nor week of spine. Worse yet was the speed with which our driver dodged crater-sized potholes and slip-slided through meters of slick red mud. This drive might have been a teeth-clenching test of endurance had it not been for the verdant green pastoral landscape that stretched out from the road on all sides. Having traveled in numerous countries in western and eastern Africa, I was more accustomed to views of dense, tropical jungles or semi-arid savannah, not to a landscape that more closely resembled Ireland with its greener-than-green fields dotted by grazing animals. The only striking difference being the dirt road that blazed like a red ribbon lain haphazardly over green velvet.

As our ancient Range Rover moved with alacrity through this landscape, my mind drifted back to the conversation I had had with my colleague on the airplane from Addis Ababa to Assosa. She had asked, innocently enough, about my other work at MEDA and I launched into a discussion about my projects and MEDA’s approach to women’s economic empowerment. This somehow took a turn to discussing the state of women in Pakistan (site of a MEDA value chain project focusing on women’s entrepreneurship), and as I discussed honor killings, acid attacks, and the Islamic custom of purdah (limiting women’s mobile outside the home), my colleague’s face became one of astonishment. I was surprised, however, that my colleague used this information as further evidence against Islam and not as a discussion point for women’s equality more broadly. Ethiopia, she informed me, did have this “problem.” While it may be true that Ethiopia doesn’t have the same kind of violence towards women witnessed in some parts of Pakistan, Ethiopia is not a shining example for the equitable treatment of women, despite being predominantly Christian (Muslims make up approximately 33%). While Christianity may not have as overt cultural practices segregating women, are not the subtle messages of submission and subservience on the part of women found throughout Christian teachings indicative of a pervasive, and deeply-rooted prejudice toward women?

In recent years, former US President, Jimmy Carter, has become an outspoken advocate for advancing women’s equality around the world; most notably breaking from his own congregation of many years in opposition to the churches inequitable treatment of women. In a recent article entitled, “Losing my Religion for Equality,” Carter affirms:

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries.1

As I consider my colleague’s position, I can’t help but consider my own and wonder am I in any position to remonstrate? For all the milestones that the US has achieved toward gender parity, do we still not suffer the same pervasive and deeply-rooted prejudice toward women? I need not quote here oft-cited statistics on gender balance in the work place, salary disparity between women and men, or the fact that a women has still never held the highest office in the most influential country on the planet (despite Ms. Clinton’s best attempts).

Coincidently, as I bounce-skid-brake-swerve my way over red dirt roads, 550km east Ethiopia’s capital is hosting the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. Attended by high-level political representatives (including US President, Barack Obama), non-governmental organizations and business sector entities, the conference has explicit discussions on development financing for women in underdeveloped communities across the globe. Perhaps not so surprisingly. Gender equality activities (doesn’t even the lack of direct reference to women in the nomenclature somehow negate the issue?) in development initiatives have become common place in recent years. Many large international development donors have required implementing partners to include gender activities, though in many cases only as a tertiary component. In fact, according to a recent OECD-DAC account, only 5 percent of all international development aid is targeted towards gender equality as a principal objective in 2012-2013. Moreover, when it comes to investing in women’s economic empowerment, the percentage was even lower at 2 percent, and aid to economic and productive sectors has remained flat despite evidence that focusing development initiatives on women can have a greater multiplying effect on the development of families and communities.2

So again, I wonder, for all our international conferences, if gender programming, and supposedly enlightened thinking will we ever achieve global gender equality? I like to think that it’s more a matter of when rather than if. Regardless, this much is surely true, the road to women’s empowerment and true equality will be like the red roads that wind through these Ethiopian hills: long, difficult, and totally worth the trip.

1. "Losing My Religion for Equality." July 15, 2009 Jimmy Carter.

2. Financing: Why it Matters for Women and Girls, UN Women.

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