Ethiopian Woman Breaks Glass Ceiling to Become Nation’s New Head of State

Sahle-Work Zewde

“Congratulations Madam President! Women do make a difference. We are proud of you!” That was the excited message from María Fernanda Espinosa Garces, President of the United Nations General Assembly, to a U.N. colleague selected to be the first woman president in Ethiopia.

In a unanimous vote, Ethiopian lawmakers this week approved Sahle-Work Zewde for the presidency, replacing Mulatu Teshome, who resigned unexpectedly a day earlier.

Her appointment has raised hopes among advocates for gender equality in the conservative country.

While the position of president is largely ceremonial, it carries important symbolic weight and social influence. It also comes as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed just days before approved a gender balanced cabinet and filled half of the slots with women.

A veteran technocrat, Sahle-Work Zewde has worked in diplomacy for more than three decades.

Born in the capital Addis Ababa, Zewde attended university in France. After graduating, she served as Ethiopia’s ambassador to France, Djibouti, Senegal and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc in East Africa.

Prior to her appointment as president, she was the UN’s top official at the African Union. She is fluent in English and French as well as Amharic, Ethiopia’s official working language.

The 68-year-old technocrat replaces Mulatu Teshome, who resigned unexpectedly a day earlier.

Abebe Aynete, a senior researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies think-tank, told Al Jazeera: “As a person who knows the Ethiopian system inside out, Zewde, as president, will offer more continuity in terms of policy but will have her own priorities, including female empowerment.”

“I consider it as a sort of a glass ceiling being broken down, showing females can also reach positions of high profile,” said Aynete.

The administration of reformer Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which assumed office in April, has appointed numerous women to influential positions that have been traditionally reserved for men, including Ethiopia’s first female Defense Minister Aisha Mohammed.

Madam Muferiat Kamil was appointed to lead the newly-created Ministry of Peace, responsible for the police and domestic intelligence agencies.

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