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Ethiopia Has Its First Female President, And She’s Pretty Badass

Sahle-Work Zewde’s historic appointment comes after an unprecedented push to achieve gender balance within Ethiopia’s government.

Posted on October 25, 2018, at 11:30 a.m. ET

Eduardo Soteras / AFP / Getty Images

NAIROBI — Ethiopia’s parliament has voted in its first female president, and even though the position is considered a ceremonial one, people are excited about it.

Sahle-Work Zewde, who becomes the only woman head of state in Africa, currently serves as the under-secretary-general of the UN (the third-highest rank at the UN). She’s also the special representative to the secretary general of the African Union, and in June topped off her CV by becoming the head of the UN Office to the African Union.

She replaces former Ethiopian president Mulatu Teshome, who abruptly resigned from his post on Wednesday.

Sahle-Work, 68, has also previously worked as the Ethiopian ambassador to Senegal, France, and Djibouti.

Africans on Twitter have been cheering Sahle-Work’s newest position.

Thank you Ethiopia for sending a clear message to the World. ‘Patriarchy can be Beaten ‘. Congratulations Ms Sahle-Work Zewde for being elected as Ethiopia first female president. It’s a win for the women Movement.#genderequity #feminism .@cghrdkenya @WeEffectEA @LinaAbirafeh https://t.co/yxlLXTbX0v

stop what you are doing and MEET our new President of the Federal Democratic Republic of #Ethiopia. Amb. Sahle Work Zewde 😍😍😍😍😍😍😍 https://t.co/24Aw559Ssc

Ethiopia's new president, Sahle-Work Zewde... ❤✊ shout out to Ethiopia for this move and for also having 50% women in the cabinet. Rwanda as well✊ https://t.co/tuvSM878Wf

It can’t be more timely & fitting that a female veteran diplomat & a former #UN senior official was appointed today as the new President of #Ethiopia when #UNSC will be holding its annual Debate on Women, Peace, Security. Last briefing by @SahleWorkZewde to #UNSC in July. 👇 https://t.co/7lqU5DiOIw

@SahleWorkZewde congratulations President Sahle-Work Zewde, it is an honour to have met a humble beautiful hard working soul like you. https://t.co/ZpOcl442HO

Help me Congratulate the new President of Ethiopia Sahle-Work Zewde who has been elected today by parliament, becoming the the first female President of Ethiopia. https://t.co/FEI1jteGxM

Ethiopia 👏👏👏 Best wishes President Sahle-Work! 🙏 *** Diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde is chosen by Ethiopian lawmakers as the ceremonial head of state. She spoke about the importance of maintaining peace in the country, as she accepted the position. https://t.co/2LPlCpnCgo

They also pointed out that, technically, Sahle-Work is not Ethiopia’s first female head of state.

ERROR H.E Sahle-Work Zewde shall not be the first Woman Ethiopian Head of State;H.E the late Empress Zewditu (Askala Maryam) was the first Head(Empress Regnant)of an Internationally recognized State in Africa that's Today #Ethiopia from 1916-1930 Congratulations Madam President👏 https://t.co/roq1rz7AoP

Her colleagues at the UN showed their support, too, as well as the vice president of Somaliland.

I am proud to hear that a former UN official, Sahle-Work Zewde, has become the first female President of Ethiopia. Congratulations, Madam President! Women do make a difference. We are proud of you! #genderequality #UN4ALL https://t.co/qlmkAIJJgi

A day to celebrate as Ethiopia's parliament approves Sahle-Work Zewde as first female president https://t.co/frZfX3AGlL

On behalf of the Republic of #Somaliland, I wish to congratulate the New President of the Federal Republic of #Ethiopia Amb Sahle-Work Zewde and I take this opportunity to look forward in working closely & strengthen the cooperation between our two countries @SahleWorkZewde https://t.co/GaUPOBzhrC

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta congratulated Sahle-Work, saying that he is "elated for Zewde on her election earlier today to the position of President of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. It is a historic moment for the people of Ethiopia, Africa and indeed the whole world."

Addressing the nation shortly after her appointment, Sahle-Work declared that her primary focus as president would be on peace-building and gender equality.

"Government and opposition parties have to understand we are living in a common house and focus on things that unite us, not what divides us, to create a country and generation that will make all of us proud," she said.

Her designation comes a couple of weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — whose seven months in office have so far been characterized by sweeping reforms — appointed a new cabinet in which half of the ministers were women.

Stressing the importance of gender parity leading to good governance, Sahle-Work said that if “the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.”

Some people tried to present Sahle-Work as a “mother figure” in her new role.

@fitsumaregaa Having a woman, the mother figure, as Head of State symbolises, as does her office, unity of purpose in a diverse family. Her reign with that motherly wisdom strengthens Ethiopia's determination to inflicting a fatal wound on poverty is charted irriversably. @SahleWorkZewde

But those opinions were quickly shut down as people pointed out that other Ethiopian politicians aren’t referred to in familial terms and that women should be recognized for more than their ability to become mothers.

@BelachewM @fitsumaregaa @SahleWorkZewde Sorry but I find it disturbing that your acclamation to her work is her "motherly figure" we don't speak of #PMAbiy or others in these tones. We need to recognize women as the professionals, established diplomats, and seasoned leaders they are. They are also mothers.

Others are also skeptical about the impact her position will have on Ethiopia's empowerment of women.

Claims like this drive me nuts. Woman placed into office by authoritarian parties still run authoritarian regimes, which are rarely good for women. See, for example, Rwanda’s much-lauded majority female parliament, which is still just a rubber stamp apparatus for RPF/Kagame. https://t.co/UmXRYup5FW


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