Ethiopia’s new Cabinet is now a record 50% female, including the country’s first woman defence minister, after lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved the nominations put forward by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
“Our women ministers will disprove the old adage that women can’t lead,” Abiy said while presenting his choices. “This decision is the first in the history of Ethiopia and probably in Africa.”
Ethiopia has faced sweeping political and economic reforms since the 42-year-old prime minister took office in April after months of anti-government protests and made pledges that include free and fair elections.
The Horn of Africa power joins a handful of countries, mostly European, where women make up 50% or more of ministerial positions, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women. French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in recent years unveiled “gender-balanced” Cabinets.
Aisha Mohammed Musa will lead Ethiopia’s defence ministry. Another woman, former House speaker Muferiat Kamil, will lead the new Ministry of Peace at a time when Africa’s second most populous country faces sometimes violent ethnic tensions as the wider political freedoms are explored.
The Ministry of Peace will oversee the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service, the Information Network Security Agency, the Federal Police Commission and the Finance Security and Information Centre, Abiy’s office confirmed on Tuesday.
This 20-member Cabinet, trimmed from 28 posts, is the second named since Abiy took office in April. The first was criticized for the low number of female ministers.
Ethiopia has long been considered a patriarchal society and it “suffers from some of lowest gender equality performance indicators in sub-Saharan Africa,” UN Women has said. “Women and girls in Ethiopia are strongly disadvantaged compared to boys and men in several areas, including literacy, health, livelihoods and basic human rights.”
Recent efforts have been made to show women in more prominent posts. Ethiopian Airlines, which calls itself Africa’s largest carrier, has publicised all-female flight crews.
Several African nations have had female defence ministers including South Africa, Central African Republic, Kenya and Guinea-Bissau. And Rwanda has received international recognition for female representation in government, with women making up 43% of its Cabinet and 61% of parliament members.