Autocrats’ push for women in government: Window dressing, or real change?

It was late 2018, and in Ethiopia the government was throwing a rock through one glass ceiling after another.

First, in mid-October, the country’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced that his cabinet would be 50 percent women – including his ministers of defense, trade, and transport.

“Our women ministers will disprove the old adage that women can’t lead,” he told the country’s parliament at the time. “This is to show respect to the women for all the contribution they have made to the country.” 

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A week later, that same parliament appointed a woman, Sahle-Work Zewde, to be the country’s president – a largely ceremonial position in Ethiopia – for the first time. And a week after that, Mr. Abiy announced another woman, Meaza Ashenafi, as the first female president of the country’s Supreme Court.

The moves were part of a wider set of reforms sweeping autocratic Ethiopia under Abiy, from the release of high-profile political prisoners to the reopening of diplomatic relations with neighboring Eritrea, a longtime enemy.

But the appointment of so many women to high-profile political posts raised an important question for many watching the country’s transition unfurl.

Was Ethiopia’s government becoming more gender balanced because its rulers really cared about women? Or did it, like many other one-party states, have more self-interested reasons for pursuing political gender equality?

Autocratic governments around the world, after all, often have a habit of absorbing powerful women into their fold so that they don’t become challengers, and of promoting gender balance as way to make themselves look modern and enlightened.

In many one-party states, indeed, promoting women is equal parts progressive and pragmatic.

Take nearby Rwanda. 

The country for years has had a larger percentage of women elected to its parliament – currently more than 60 percent – than any other country in the world. And last year, its president Paul Kagame also named his first 50 percent female cabinet.

“A higher number of women in decision-making roles has led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes,” he explained.

True. But political gender equality has also brought other, less warm and fuzzy benefits for Rwanda’s government, says Yolande Bouka, a visiting assistant professor of international affairs and African studies at George Washington University.

“Despite the fact that Rwanda is a repressive police state, it’s often cited as a model of women’s political empowerment,” she says. “Gender has been a powerful way for Kagame to frame his government as progressive.”

Of course, Dr. Bouka notes, Rwanda has a very particular history when it comes to gender. More men than women died in its 1994 genocide, and as a result women stepped in during the aftermath to fill all kinds of leadership roles they had rarely occupied before.

But across the region, from Zimbabwe to Uganda to Cameroon, many other equally dictatorial governments have also pushed an aggressive agenda of political gender equality, enforcing high gender quotas in their parliaments and appointing women to high-level government posts.

Although the specific reasons countries do this vary, there are some common denominators, says Anne-Kathrin Kreft, an expert in gender and politics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and coauthor of the recent academic journal article, “Authoritarian Institutions and Women’s Rights.” 

Most repressive governments with high levels of gender equality are states with a single, all-powerful political party, she notes. And that party is often very interested in absorbing any possible competitors – including women’s groups and powerful female activists. Women can also be a large and loyal support base for a single-party government, so it’s often helpful to promote their interests to maintain stability and keep unrest at bay.

Plus, she says, stacking your government with women is a way to say to the outside world, look at us, we are modern and forward-thinking – but without the more difficult work of opening political space to opposition parties or allowing a free and critical media.

Still, she says, these moves are not without value for the women living in countries that enact them. In Rwanda, for instance, the female-majority Parliament has passed laws that strengthen punishments for domestic and sexual violence, and increased women’s ability to own and inherit land.

“Even saying that there are strategic reasons for increasing gender equality doesn’t mean it’s not still a good development,” says Ms. Kreft. “It often leads to women having more power in government, which can lead to more laws that help women. So this isn’t just window dressing – it has real and positive implications too.”

That brings us back to Ethiopia. A year ago, before Abiy came to power, such a strong interest in promoting women in government might have looked like little more than a cynical ploy to win over allies and donors, says Awol Allo, a lecturer in law at Keele University in England, expert in Ethiopian politics, and author of a recent opinion piece in Al Jazeera on women’s rights in Ethiopia.

But given Abiy’s broader agenda of opening up Ethiopian society, his appointment of women seems fairly earnest, he says.

“With many governments, there are reasons to look at those decisions to appoint women with great suspicion, but Ethiopia’s case is different because the changes we are seeing are not just in the areas of empowering women, they’re far broader and deeper,” Dr. Allo says. “Now is there likely some consideration of how the move will be viewed internationally? Yes. But when you look at things more broadly, it’s clear to me the commitment to gender equality comes from a genuine place.”

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