Sahle-Work Zewde Just Became Ethiopia’s First Female President

Sahle-Work Zewde, a seasoned diplomat who vowed to make gender parity a reality in Ethiopia, was been appointed the first female president in the nation’s history Thursday. Zewde is now the only female head of state in all of Africa.

Zewde is no stranger to making history. She was the second woman to ever be appointed an ambassador in Ethiopia’s history, and went on to represent the country in Senegal and Djibouti when its military-socialist regime was still in power and the civil war was at its peak. During a similarly storied career at the United Nations in which she served in numerous positions, she also became the first woman to ever head the United Nations Office to the African Union.

“Congratulations, Madam President!” the female president of the United Nations General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garces, tweeted after Zewde’s appointment. “Women do make a difference. We are proud of you!”

Zewde’s appointment was followed by the nation’s equally historic establishment of a cabinet of ministers divided equally by gender, including the appointment of the country’s first female defense minister. The body also created a new Ministry of Peace, now headed up by a woman. “If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women,” Zewde said to the Sunday Times, “it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.”

Political power in Ethiopia is mostly held by the prime minister; the president’s role is restricted to attending ceremonies and functions. Zewde’s presidency, however, will still play a significant role in fostering more gender parity in politics and beyond. “In a patriarchal society such as ours,” prime minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted, “the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life.”

Zewde herself also shows no signs of relenting in her own fight for gender equality around the world, and especially in her own community, no matter the restrictions inherent in her new role. “I am a product of people who fought for equality and political freedom in this country, and I will work hard to serve them,” Zewde declared in a speech to Parliament Thursday accepting her appointment. “If you thought I spoke a lot about women already, know that I am just getting started.”

Kohinur Khyum Tithila is a journalist based in Bangladesh. She is a Fulbright scholar and received her second master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper, & Online Journalism from Syracuse University, first master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Dhaka University, and bachelor’s degree in English from East West University. Kohinur writes about LGBTQ and women’s issues, feminism, crime, secularism, social justice and human rights. She is also addicted to anything caffeinated.

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