The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopia, Contraception & the Role of Women in Ethiopian Society

Author - Vera Baird QC MP


Ethiopia is a fascinating country. I have had the privilege of visiting it twice in the past two years. The first time to train the Ethiopian police and Judiciary in Domestic Violence awareness and most recently, courtesy of the Norfolk Fellows Trust, when I travelled with my fellow Parliamentarian, the Member for South Ribble, Mr. David Borrow.

From my two recent visits I will share with you some of the thoughts that struck me in relation to two issues that, when compared to the other fundamental problems that Ethiopia is burdened with and which are well chronicled, often receive less attention than I think they should. The first of those issues is reproductive health and the second; the role of women in Ethiopian society.

While in Ethiopia, David Borrow and I were privileged to talk to Dr. Duah from the United Nations Populations Fund. The Ethiopian Government statistics show that the country's population is 70.5 million. Population growth, which was 3 per cent., has now settled at 2.9 per cent. That is a very minor reduction, despite the high level of activity of charities such as Marie Stopes International, and the work on birth control carried out by UNICEF, the UNFPA, aid donors and the Government; 2.9 per cent. of 70.5 million represents huge population growth - the population will undoubtedly double before 2030. The birth rate is 39.8 per 1,000 people, notwithstanding a death rate per 1,000 live births of 103.2. The average woman has 5.55 children, and life expectancy for those children is about 40 years.

The UNFPA has a $5 million per year programme over 5 years for dealing with reproductive health, which is not very much. It had hoped to focus its resources on a few regions, but it seems that the Government have a fairly clear policy of regional resource distribution according to a formula, and so resources have been spread rather thinly. It is estimated that 6 per cent. of the Ethiopian population use contraception compared with, for example, 40 per cent. in Kenya.

The national population conference in Ethiopia in June this year emphasised the need for urgent action. However, family planning is not popular, and presents political difficulties. There is also some sense that the Orthodox Church will not help. Charities told us that the Orthodox Church has no doctrinal problems with birth control, but it seems clear that it will not come off the fence. I am grateful to the ambassador for making it clear that there is no hope of that. That is a great tragedy. The 500,000 orthodox priests in Ethiopia are each an integral and respected part of the community. They could certainly help to break down the myths that stop people from taking up the use of contraception as strongly as they should.

The issue is clouded in myths and traditions. Dr. Jember, in a sustainable development project in a poor area of Addis Ababa, told us of a fear that the contraceptive pill made a person weak and unable to manage their work. Unsurprisingly, there is a notion that a child is a gift of God, a measure of status and an insurance policy for old age. Women are expected to have children. One tribe tells its males that they should abandon their wives if they do not produce one baby a year. I am not surprised, and no one else will be, that some women are bitter that they are denied control over their futures. Maternal mortality in Ethiopia is the highest in the world.

Availability of contraceptives is low, irrespective of the lack of will to take the methods on. The UNFPA spends half of its budget on physical contraception, as the major supplier of the public health system. However, no programme of contraception will work without Government support, strong political will and the help of non-governmental organisations. As we went around, day after day, talking about attempts to make sustainable communities and engender a livelihood for Ethiopia, we were concerned not to hear about sufficient reproductive health to curb the increasing population. Great concerns exist that the Government pay insufficient attention to the issue.

I was recently reassured by the important announcement that the US Packard Foundation has announced that it will spend $40 million on expanding its reproductive health work in Tigray and the southern states. I understand that the request that Packard should spend resources on reproductive health came from the Prime Minister, which I find strongly reassuring. The Government are clearly taking up the idea that better contraceptive advice is needed. However, there is a long way to go.

There is no doubt that UK resources should be applied. We had concerns that donors would not be able to do much about myths about child bearing if there was no political will to tackle them. A donor country cannot easily impose conditions about ways of life and morality on a recipient country. It was a relief to learn that the Packard Foundation's project has been encouraged, as it shows that Ethiopia is keen for all the help it can get.

In ways that are too obvious to set out, reproductive health is integrally linked with women's rights the issue with which I was primarily concerned when I visited with my fellow parliamentarian. Ethiopia has a modern, gender-egalitarian constitution. Article 35 should be read out in ringing tones:

"Women shall, in the enjoyment of rights and protections provided for by this Constitution, have equal right with men."

It gets better:

"Women have equal rights with men in marriage as prescribed by this Constitution."

Better still:

"The historical legacy of inequality and discrimination suffered by women in Ethiopia taken into account, women, in order to remedy this legacy, are entitled to affirmative measures. The purpose of such measures shall be to provide special attention to women so as to enable them to compete and participate on the basis of equality with men in political, social and economic life as well as in public and private institutions."

Women played a significant role in the overthrow of the Derg, and have earned that equality.

All the institutions are in place. The Ethiopian Parliament has a standing committee on women's affairs, which is chaired by Dr. Ethiopia - a notable female MP who recently visited the House of Commons. She is proud to say that there are two men and 11 women on the committee. There are quotas to ensure that women have a voice in public life and there are efforts to train women candidates for public office. The committee felt that the issue of gender equality was mainstreamed.

A new family code has recently been adopted, and there is a new criminal code to outlaw marital rape, which was outlawed here only 10 years ago. Ethiopia is doing very well to outlaw both that and female genital mutilation. We were told that over 90 per cent of women in Ethiopia suffered from genital mutilation. They are a bold and strong Government who outlaw something as prevalent as that. There is no doubt about their commitment to equality, or that it is affecting the metropolitan areas.

I can track the improvement in women's roles in Ethiopia from my own experiences. I was first asked to go by the British Council in order to train some of the judiciary to deal with domestic violence cases. At that time, the new family code, which expressed the new constitutional principle of equality, was functioning only in Addis Ababa, although the constitution is national. The old civil code, which goes back to Haile Selassie's day, made it perfectly clear that the man was the head of the family and that the wife owed him a duty of obedience. The penal code states that nothing is a criminal offence if it is done according to law. Judges outside Addis Ababa were saying, "We can't do anything about domestic violence. The man is the head of the family; his wife owes him a duty of obedience. If he has to enforce the duty of obedience on her by assault, that is not a crime because it is done according to the law in the civil code." That position was very hard to argue against. I said that judges must look at the constitution and interpret those difficulties through the equality clauses of the constitution. That was a hard argument.

This year, I was asked to teach police officers how to police domestic violence. I asked them whether they felt that there was any impediment on their legal powers similar to that which the judges had experienced. They laughed and said that it was perfectly clear that the constitution now prevailed and that everybody accepted it. That seemed to be empirical evidence - although pretty rough and ready - that the march of women in Ethiopia is going forward ever stronger, but it is easy to paint too rosy a picture. In a country that until recently had laws allowing the subordination of women, there is still a huge tradition of that.

We were privileged to meet the head of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, who has recently received the African Nobel prize for her help with women in Ethiopia. After receiving the award, she was interviewed and was asked what she thought the position of women in Ethiopia was. She said that it is poor and does not compare with that in the neighbouring countries, as they have little social and economic power and are still prisoners, especially in the rural areas, to old traditions and views.

The prevalence of abduction of schoolgirls is still clear, so much so that parents are reluctant to send their daughters to school. If a young man asks a girl to marry him and she is not interested, his usual tactic is to abduct her with his friends and rape her. Then, when no one else wants her, she becomes his. There is also a strong tradition of female genital mutilation, and although rape in marriage may technically be outlawed, it is prevalent. There is also still a good deal of domestic violence, so there is a long way yet to go.

There are now clearer statements than ever before of the Government's good intentions on reproductive health and women's rights, but there appears to be a long lead-in time before either desirable policy comes to fruition.

I have said little about the Government, who have had a difficult time in contending with war and repeated drought. They appear to aim to do well and attempt to comply with international human rights treaties, and although they are not perfect, they do well to try. They appear to be run intelligently and have strong plans and powerful initiatives. There is a sense that, because the Derg was an oppressive regime in which initiative was regarded as rebellion, the civil service may still be slow to respond to Government initiatives, but that problem is not isolated in Ethiopia.

Overseas investment in Ethiopia is critically needed, and tourism is one of the country's greatest hopes. I can give direct testimony to the interest and beauty in Ethiopia - Simien national park, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gonder, the fantastic and unique former kingdom of Axum and the stunning Blue Nile falls. It is as beautiful as eastern Africa and as historic as northern Africa; it has as interesting peoples as western Africa and all the wildlife of southern Africa. It is a country with multiple problems but with a reasonably stable Government with clear hope and strong plans. There is a saying in Ethiopia when one looks on something that is particularly beautiful: before he made it God must have washed his hands. I am sure that everyone who has visited this complex, but now optimistic country, would agree that before God built Ethiopia he certainly washed his hands.

First Published in News File Spring 2004

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