Democracy Talk – the rights of women and girls in Ethiopia

Published 25 June 2020 in:

A record number of people have now seen the first livestreamed Democracy Talk held at the Embassy in Addis Ababa on 11 June. Earlier in the year, the plan was to focus on women’s political participation ahead of the elections in Ethiopia. Then the global pandemic hit and the elections were postponed, so the Embassy decided instead to hold a digital Democracy Talk that would nevertheless centre on the rights of women and girls.

“As human beings, but also driven by our feminist foreign policy, we felt it was natural to start a conversation about the impacts of COVID-19 on girls and women in Ethiopia,” says Ambassador Torbjörn Pettersson.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and Drive for Democracy are cornerstones of the work of the Embassy in Addis Ababa, and engage all sections of the Embassy. Since 2017, the Embassy has had a gender equality network comprising 12 gender experts and partners from different parts of Ethiopian society, including civil society, the private sector, the UN, and the media. The aim of the network is to inform the Embassy about what is happening in the country regarding the rights of women and girls. The network also provides an opportunity to support the weak women’s movement in the country. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, the Embassy received reports about increasing rates of domestic violence and child marriages as girls were kept from going to school. Since health care has focused completely on the pandemic, women needing maternity care, for example, have been squeezed out.

Swedish ambassadors Torbjörn Pettersson and Ann Bernes took part in the webinar, as did Ethiopian Minister of Women, Children and Youth Filsan Abdullahi, Executive Director of civil society organisation the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) Lensa Biyena, Executive Director of the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Associations Saba Gebremedhin, Executive Director of Initiative Africa Kebour Ghenna, and Deputy Representative at UN Women Ethiopia Anna Parini.

The prominent panel was probably one of the factors behind the event’s wide reach in Ethiopian society. In addition to the 50 or so partners and civil society and government representatives who took part, the live streaming on Facebook had a steady 400–650 viewers. The clip has been shared no fewer than 874 times and, at the time of writing, it has reached more than 198 800 people – and the numbers are rising.

“Firstly, the issue was topical and timely – how women and girls are impacted by COVID-19 had figured very little in the Ethiopian debate but was just beginning to attract some attention. And then I think we succeeded in fostering a great sense of ownership of the event among our partners, and this helped us reach out early to their followers too,” says Ambassador Torbjörn Pettersson, referring to the massive sharing of the livestreamed event.

“The fact that a controversial Ethopian politican shared the webinar on his Facebook page probably also contributed to the massive sharing – and also to the at times intense political discussions that broke out in the comments during and after the session,” he adds.

The discussion and conclusions will provide a real springboard for the Embassy’s continued Drive for Democracy efforts. The theme of the next Democracy Talk in Addis Ababa is how civil society and future elections in Africa will be affected by COVID-19.

Author: Moa Lagercrantz and John Skoglund