Rebecca Turkington is the assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Thursday, the Ethiopian parliament elected its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Though the role is largely ceremonial, it holds symbolic importance for women across the country and the continent, as Zewde will be the only female head of state in Africa. (Saara Kuugongelwa-Ahmadhila, prime minister of Namibia, is the only female head of government in Africa.) In her opening speech, she emphasized the importance of equality, telling MPs that if they thought she was talking too much about women, that she had only just begun.
Her election comes on the heels of another important step forward for Ethiopia, and neighboring Rwanda, who joined the meager ranks of countries with ministerial gender parity. In a cabinet reshuffle last week, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed ten female ministers, comprising half of the all cabinet posts. Days later, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame announced that Rwanda’s new cabinet would also be gender-balanced.
According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, fewer than ten countries have reached parity at the cabinet level. The global average for female government ministers is 18.3 percent, and more than a dozen countries have no women cabinet members at all. Ethiopia and Rwanda are part of a small club, and further unique for granting women substantial portfolios. Both named women to key ministerial posts; Ethiopia’s new minsters of defense and peace, and Rwanda’s ministers of trade and economic planning, are women. Of the female ministers in office worldwide, the vast majority hold posts that oversee social issues. In 2017, women were most likely to be ministers of environment (108), social affairs (102), family/children/youth (98), women’s affairs (68), education (67), and culture (65). Far fewer women served as ministers for justice (38), finance (19), and a mere fifteen countries—including Ethiopia—have a woman at the helm of the defense ministry.
In their announcements of the new appointments, both Prime Minister Abiy and President Kagame remarked that they believed women would improve the effectiveness of the cabinet. Abiy told lawmakers that women would help battle corruption and bring accountability to the government. Kagame noted to judicial officials that "a higher number of women in decision-making roles have led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes.”
To a certain extent, research bears this out. Women’s political participation is correlated with a number of gains that are particularly important for post-conflict countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda. A report from CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy program finds that, over a number of metrics, greater women’s participation in peace and security processes leads to more stability. Further studies find higher levels of women’s representation in government leads to a longer duration of peace, and lower likelihood of civil war relapse. Greater numbers of women in cabinet level posts correlates with friendlier working environments for women, and women’s political participation encourages confidence in democratic institutions and is linked with lower levels of extralegal killing, torture, disappearances and other forms of state abuse.
There are important caveats to these findings. Historically, the appointment of women to high-ranking posts has sometimes been instrumentalized for political ends, and several studies acknowledge that the transformative potential of women’s political representation is hindered when grassroots women’s activism is smothered. The Rwandan case in particular is evidence that even when women have high levels of descriptive representation, without an autonomous civil society, gains do not necessarily trickle down.
Nevertheless, this recent news represents a welcome step forward. In addition to Ethiopia and Rwanda’s history-making cabinet line-ups, Mali’s president announced last month a new cabinet that is 30 percent female, including in key posts like the minister of foreign affairs. Women in ministerial roles are slowly changing the face of African politics. Their presence is a necessary—if not sufficient—element to achieving long-lasting equality and stability.