Women in positions of power could mark a turning point for Ethiopia’s girls

The president of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde
The president of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde

Within the last month Ethiopia has downsized its cabinet, named women to half the positions and, for the first time, appointed a woman as president.

These are huge milestones in Ethiopian politics. They could also mark a turning point for the country’s girls as the women ministers are perhaps more likely to pursue policies that benefit girls.

READ MORE: Ethiopia elected its first female President, Sahle-Work Zewde - here are 6 women in Africa before her

In addition, having women in positions of power will mean that girls have role models they can look up to, something that’s not common in the country. 

Girls in Ethiopia lag behind boys in school enrollment and academic achievement, especially at higher levels. Female students make up 48% of all primary students, but only a third of students in higher education. 

READ MORE: 85% of South African learners aspire to go to university – where will they end up? 

One reason for this are structural constraints – like access to school and poverty – though cultural practices, such as child marriage, also play a significant role.

Another reason girls don’t complete their studies is a lack of role models. Most Ethiopian women, particularly in rural areas, have little education, are seldom in wage-paying jobs and have limited socio-economic status. In schools, only 17% of teachers are women, and only 10% of school leadership positions are occupied by women – adults in positions of power are usually men.

The appointment of many women into positions of power can break stereotypes and inspire girls – potentially influencing their choices and actions.

READ MORE: Recent news around former Model C girls' schools remind us how difficult it is to be black in those spaces 


There is increasing recognition among economists and other social science researchers that an individual’s aspirations influence their choices, behaviour and life outcome. If they don’t feel they’ll improve their position by additional effort or investment, they may choose to hold back. But if they see one of their own in positions of power, this can give them hope that some targets are achievable – encouraging more effort and investment.

This has been well documented when it comes to female role models at school and the impact on girls’ education. Studies from India, South Korea, Chile and the U.S. show that the presence of female teachers significantly improved the performance of female students.

A study from the US also showed how teachers can influence attitudes towards certain careers – increased exposure to female experts in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics motivated more girls to pursue careers within these fields. 

READ MORE: Bonang Matheba wants to give the world 12 years to make sure every girl gets an education 

Neglected girls

Over the past two decades, Ethiopia has achieved significant progress in getting all children into school. Between 2000 and 2016, net enrollment in primary school increased  from 49% to 100%, mostly due to improved physical access to school.

But the gender gap persisted. The dropout rate among girls is high, partly due to early marriage but also because education is not always prioritised.

Children in rural Ethiopia are expected to spend hours fetching water, collecting firewood or tending to livestock every day. On top of this, girls have additional household chores like cooking, cleaning and child care. These tasks affects their ability to enrol and their academic performance at school.

Also, if parents have to ration schooling due to poverty, it’s more likely that they will send the boys because they believe it will mean the greatest return on investment. This means girls miss out on their small window of educational opportunity. 

READ MORE: Rihanna says she hated school - but UNESCO reminds us that a girl's earning potential goes up by 20% for every year she completes 

Many parents have lower aspirations for the higher educational and career achievements for girls than they do for boys. This is because of the stereotype that girls and women are primarily home makers or assistants, while boys and men are producers and leaders.

Ethiopia’s women in power, may be socially removed from the girl in rural Ethiopia, but their appointment may have huge implications for their educational achievement and social empowerment. Experience in India show that bringing more women into leadership positions eliminated the large gender gap in education. Exposure to female leaders also led to change in voter attitudes encouraging more women to stand for, and win, elected positions.

It’s possible that the recent high level appointments of women in Ethiopia may have a snowball effect with further gender balance at lower levels of government and across sectors. 

This article was originally published in The Conversation

Sign up to W24's newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
28% - 5 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
6% - 1 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
50% - 9 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
0% - 0 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
17% - 3 votes