Interview with Meaza Ashenafi, head of women lawyers association

Meaza Ashenafi founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) in 1995, of which she is still the executive director. After returning to Ethiopia from the US, where she received the Hunger Project Award – known as the African Nobel Prize – for representing women in Ethiopia, she told IRIN about the difference her organisation has made in ensuring women’s rights, but also why Ethiopia is still an extremely difficult country to live in as a woman.

QUESTION: What is the position of women in Ethiopia today?

ANSWER: The position of women is very difficult - economically, politically and socially. They have no voice, they have no economic power, they have no social power, and they are not organised. They cannot put pressure on the government.

Q: Is Ethiopia a good place to be a woman compared to other African countries?

A: Uganda is a good place, Tanzania is much better than us, South Africa is much better.

Q: What difference to women’s lives have you made here?

A. That is a difficult question, because if you ask me what difference we have made to the day-to-day lives of women, we haven’t done much. It is a complicated question - one of social development, poverty reduction and so on.

Q: So you shouldn’t have won the award?

A: I can give you the impact in a general way. We have contributed to the development of family law, which originally was discriminatory against women. So we pushed for that, and also for the introduction of new land laws. The former family law used to say that the husband is the head of the family, the husband is in charge of the common property of the family. Everything was linked to gender division.

Q: What has changed?

A: The personal relations of the husband and wife. The former law says if the husband cannot afford to pay for a domestic worker, then the woman should take care of the domestic work. It also has implications for divorce and property division, maintenance and custody. These [cases] were not going to the regular court – they were handled by family arbitration, which was against the interests of women, because it was composed of mainly men and almost always decided in the interests of the man. That now has changed.

Q: Are women adequately protected under the law now?

A: In terms of law and policy, the framework is generally good, but there are some subordinate laws that need to be rectified.

Q: Which ones?

A: There is no specific law talking about domestic violence, so we need laws there; there is no law on workplace sexual harassment. Also, we have a law on affirmative action. There is a provision under the constitution which says that women are entitled to affirmative action, but there are gaps in the law itself.

Q: The government says it has signed up to numerous conventions on human rights – why then the problem?

A: Because we don’t have the mechanisms, we don’t have the factors to implement those constitutional principles. We have good international standards, but we don’t have courts that are capable of interpreting and applying those laws. We don’t have the human rights commission in place, an ombudsman, or enforcement.

Q: Would you like to see political leaders doing gender awareness courses?

A: That is very important, very critical, because often we think they are doing things deliberately, ignoring our issues. But more often they are not, it is because there are competing agendas on government decision-makers. So training should be a key component.

Q: What is the next legal policy that EWLA is trying to shape?

A: The issue of women’s land rights is a key issue. In the constitution, women are guaranteed the right to land, but this is not happening in practice. Almost in all regions, women do not have any access to land whatsoever. They don’t have the right to inherit, and the only option is to get married and have a husband. But when the husband dies, they are also kicked off their land.

We also want to see more women participate in the 2005 election, not only as voters but also as candidates. We want to see the election law amended to see a critical number of female candidates, because that is what they do in Mozambique, South Africa and Uganda.

Q: Is there a difference between changing the law and changing what people actually do?

A: That is another challenge, because, like in many developing countries, there are laws, there are policies, but implementation of those laws needs infrastructure, skill and knowledge.

Q: Early marriage is against the law but still occurs?

A: In the former family law it stated that women could get married at the age of 15. Now it says 18, but if you go to certain parts of the country, children get married at the age of eight or 10. Yes, this is another challenge, but now we have the legal framework, so we can ask for accountability.

Q: Is it a good thing to challenge and take away these traditions in Ethiopia?

A: I think traditions are good, customs are good, and we have good customs, but we don’t need to live with the bad customs like female genital mutilation, domestic violence and early marriage. It’s against development and its against poverty reduction. Why is it we must hang on to these customs?

Q: But there are many women who support these things you are fighting.

A: Yes, but it is because of socialisation, it is because of their economic and social condition.

Q: You mean they don’t realise what they are supporting?

A: One, they don’t realise and two, they don’t have the power to change it, because they are not opinion leaders and they are not decision-makers, whether that is at the household level, the community level or whether that is at the policy level. They are forced.

Q: What now needs to be done to help change the position of women in Ethiopia?

A: One key area is legal aid. So far, we have supported about 30,000 women, and have a national office here and six branch offices. We organise basic legal training, and some of this will be useful to change the situation of women in our country.

Q: How are your relations with the Ethiopian government?

A: They are very good – we don’t have any specific problems, and in fact we work very closely with the women’s affairs office. Of course, we always want to keep our independence and keep our distance, because we want to continue our advocacy work and act as a pressure group.

Q: Have you got any idea how long this struggle is going to last?

A: It is very difficult to make a projection, because it is a development issue, a social issue. It is complicated. But I know there will be incremental changes, and I know for my daughters the situation will be much, much better.