By: Fatime Beri*

On October 25, 2018, Ethiopia’s parliament approved senior diplomat Sahle-Worke Zewde as the country’s first female president. In a unanimous vote during the second Special Joint Session of Ethiopia’s two houses of parliament – the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of the Federation – lawmakers picked the career diplomat for the largely ceremonial role. [1] Prior to her appointment, Zewde served as both the special representative of the United Nations’ Secretary-General and the head of the UN office to the African Union. [2] She also has held top diplomatic posts representing Ethiopia in France and Djibouti. She will replace Mulatu Teshome, who tendered his resignation to parliament. Zewde’s appointment makes her Africa’s only serving female head of state.

Even so, in recent decades, the expansion of women’s political representation in sub-Saharan Africa has been nothing short of remarkable. The number of women legislators in African parliaments tripled between 1990 and 2010, resulting in African countries having among the highest rates of women’s legislative representation in the world.[3] The dominant explanations for this change have been institutional factors (namely, the adoption of gender quotas and the presence of proportional representation systems) and democratization.[4]

Gains for women in politics matter beyond numbers alone. States with more women in national legislatures spend more on social welfare and have better child health outcomes, particularly in the most economically disadvantaged countries.[5] Women legislators are also more likely to sponsor legislation that serves women. Even in authoritarian and hybrid regimes, increasing women’s representation may increase women’s rights legislation, as in the case of Uganda.[6] But, the diversity of representative institutions impacts more than legislation. In Africa, rising women’s political representation has been shown to impact women’s civic engagement and self-esteem, as well as men’s assessments of women’s capabilities. Various factors could contribute to African women’s recent political success, including changes to electoral institutions, democratization, economic development, women’s growing education and labor-force participation, the rise of left-leaning political parties, increasing international pressures from the UN and various regional organizations, and the influx of foreign aid.

In 2000, the Special Session of the UN General Assembly, reviewing the progress of the outcomes of the Fourth World Conference on Women, emphasized the need to ensure women’s participation throughout all levels of decision-making and implementation in development activities and peace processes. The value of women’s participation in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building was reinforced later that year in Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. The resolution called for the inclusion of a “gender perspective” in post-conflict settlements, “including the special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction”. Resolution 1325 also endorsed “measures that ensure the protection of and respect for human rights of women and girls, particularly as they relate to the constitution, the electoral system, the police, and the judiciary.”

Ethiopia is one of the few African countries currently taking an active approach to integrating women into its top political positions. The administration of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which assumed office in April, has appointed numerous women to influential positions that have been traditionally reserved for men.[7] In October of 2018, Abiy appointed a 20-person cabinet in which half the posts were assigned to women, including Ethiopia’s first female Defense Minister, Aisha Mohammed. This makes Ethiopia the third country in Africa, after Rwanda and Seychelles, to achieve gender parity in their cabinets.[8] Muferiat Kamil was appointed to lead the newly-created Ministry of Peace, responsible for the police and domestic intelligence agencies. [9] Ethiopia has demonstrated its willingness to ensure gender proportionality in politics.

By all means, a celebration is called for. Not only is the election of President Zewde a historic accomplishment for Ethiopia, but for the entire continent as well. However, as 2018 comes to an end, let’s reflect on the past elections that took place on the continent. In 2018, more than 21 countries in Africa held presidential, parliamentary, legislative and municipal elections.[10] So far into the year, Djibouti, Sierra Leon, Egypt, South Sudan, Togo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Guinea, Mali, Gabon, Tunisia, Mauritia, Swaziland, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sao Tome, and Madagascar have held their elections. Out of 17 countries, only one elected a female head of state. Upcoming elections to pay close attention to are Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo, Libya, Chad, and Madagascar. However, among these selected states, not a single female candidate is running. Therefore, Zewde of Ethiopia will stand alone as the only head of state in all of Africa.

In all its history, the continent has only seen a handful of female heads of states. Prior to Ethiopia’s 2018 presidential election, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim of Mauritius was the last woman to hold the title of the president out of all 54 states in Africa. Gurib-Fakim served as president from 2015-2018. Sylvie King served as acting head of state for Burundi between 1993 and 1994.[11] Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri was South Africa’s acting president in 2005 and 2008.[12] The first elected female head of state in Africa was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She served as the president of Liberia from 2006-2018.[13] Rose Francine Rogombé was the interim president of Gabon in 2009.[14] In 2012 and 2015, Agnès Monique Ohsan Bellepeau took on the role of Mauritius’ acting president.[15] The second African elected female head of state and Malawi’s first female president was Joyce Hilda Banda from 2012-2014.[16] Catherine Samba-Panza became Central African Republic’s acting head of state.[17] It is alarming to know that in all its history, the continent has witnessed only three elected female presidents.

While the position of president is largely ceremonial in Ethiopia, it carries important symbolic weight and social influence. Zewde herself has already noticed the optimism her appointment has created among Ethiopian women.[18] At her swearing-in ceremony in parliament, she said she planned to raise the issue of female empowerment non-stop over her six-year term.[19]”I know today I have said a lot about female empowerment, but expect me to be even more vocal in the coming years about female rights and equality,” Zewde said.[20] In her first address to parliament, Sahle-Work stressed the importance of unity and promised to be a voice for women.

As we approach 2019, the lack of female heads of state within Africa is concerning, to say the least. The continent is composed of 54 fully recognized states, but most have never been led by a woman. As there are no female nominees in upcoming African presidential elections for 2018 and 2019, the world will simply have to wait to observe Africa’s next move. However, in the meantime, the rest of Africa must look to Ethiopia in encouraging female empowerment from the local level to the highest federal level. The appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers. It’s time for more women to be seated at the table in Africa.



[1]Al Jazeera, “Sahle-Work Zewde Named Ethiopia’s First Female President”. Al Jazeera. October 25, 2018,

[2]Elias Gebreselassie, “Who is Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s First Female President?”
Melanie Hugh and Alili Mari Tripp, Civil War and Trajectories of Change in Women’s Political Representation in Africa, 1985–2010. In Social Forces 93, no. 4: 1513-1540






[8]Reuters, “ Ethiopia’s Parliament Approves Sahle-Work Zewde as First Female President”, Reurters. October 25, 2018,


[10]Dorina Bekoe, “Africa’s Most Challenging Elections in 2018.” Africa Center. February 16, 2018,[11]Janeth Johnson, “Female Presidents in Africa: A Rather Short History.” YNaija. June 05, 2015,











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