An alarming silence is haunting Ethiopian society, namely the silence of political parties on strategies of development and emancipation of women. If such ‘leaders’ think gender is less important than political power, the following is my challenge to them as I hold that gender is pivotal both to democracy and development.
The marginalization of women and the violence unleashed against them have effectively become a hurdle to releasing the women’s agency and that in turn has contributed to perpetuating the poverty and under-development of Ethiopia. Seen from this perspective, releasing the women’s agency constitutes a key link to both social development and freedom. That is indeed why I contend that women constitute the historical agency for social change and development in the concrete conditions of Ethiopia.
The treatise on “freedom as precondition for development” must go beyond rationalizing the indispensability of freedom and establish the linkages between the various components that make this freedom workable and practical in a given society at a given time and identify the principal social agent for development. Beyond the necessity of space for popular participation by civil society, that is, freedom, there is also a structural problem at the cultural/ethical level that severely prevents society from having the disposition to accept, absorb and consolidate democratic ideas and alternatives. It is crucial in a discourse on democracy and democratization, with implicit impact on development, to identify these hurdles and get to the bottom of the nature and characteristic features of their construction. It is the identification of these hurdles that can lead to identifying areas of intervention that can make a breakthrough towards change of perceptions that Ethiopian society still clings to.
It is my bold assertion that knowledgability is one important precondition for the transformation of individuals from subject to citizen, thereby laying the foundation for the emergence of civil society. I also assert that the process of social change towards civil society and the dismantling of poverty are the opposite sides of the same phenomenon, development. I also argued that women constitute the social agency of both social development and social change towards freedom. Here, we are dealing with another dimension of the problem, namely, how lack of knowlegeability, -which constitutes poverty of the mind,- in turn perpetuates poverty and under-development. As the Ethiopian variant of the patriarchal mentality has it, male dominance prevails as a function of the degradation of women. In addition and as the shameful practice of rape and violence against women unambiguously displayed, Ethiopian women, far from becoming a social agency with recognition of their role in social change, in fact, live in perpetual fear, hopelessness and apathy. Their male counterparts enjoy the dominance that patriarchy bestowed on them but at a huge cost; at the cost of perpetuating their own ignorance. A great many of the womenfolk also share this patriarchal mentality, thus becoming a hurdle in the required transformation from subject to citizen.
At this stage, the patriarchal society in Ethiopia, even if it is granted unrestricted freedom for participation and political choice, suffers from serious maladies at the cognitive level, which is in turn one of the major stumbling blocks to the transformation of subjects to citizens. The universality of ignorance, its pervasiveness and impact of the low level of cognition on an individual Ethiopian constitutes the principal hurdle for democratic and humane values to develop and expand, which in turn influences the development process. The prevailing attitude on sexuality in general and masculinity and female sexuality in particular lies at the heart of this cognitive malady. It accounts largely for the generally repressive and under-developed attitude towards the living (women) and the future (children). Unless Ethiopian society passes through some kind of ‘cultural revolution’ at the level of cognition, democratization and freedom in practice will still be an unrealistic dream and so will poverty eradication and development. In this sense, women, being both the object and subject of the required change as well as in their responsibility for nurturing the future generation, constitute the principal social agent for development. Without women as principal subjects and gender as the perspective at the centre of a strategy of change and development, neither freedom/democracy nor development can be attained. I wonder how many of the political parties in this country realize this.
From the reality at grassroots level too, poverty is very much linked to women and in the contemporary world poverty has a woman’s face. Successive UNDP Human Development Reports as well as numerous studies have consistently indicated that 70% of the world’s poor are women. This holds true to Ethiopia too, where there are more factors that make women poorer. As part of a traditional society of the fiercest patriarchal values, Ethiopian women are primarily responsible for raising and rearing children; they also look after the aged. In male-headed households women have no say in property and the allocation of family income. In pastoral communities, women are not even allowed to own property. The paradox is however, in such an impoverished country, the household and the country and the family managed to co-exist mainly due to the sacrificial role of women. In short, women constitute the proletarians of our time. By the same token, development paradigms and strategies as well as democratization processes cannot do without recognizing the central role to be played by women and in the absence of gender as the principal perspective.
Furthermore, no section of Ethiopian society is as exposed to all forms of violence and discrimination as women are. Violence against women is believed to have been going on for centuries and has now reached an alarming proportion. This violence is tantamount to unleashing violence against society itself. One enormous structural constraint on the part of civil society as far as the process of subject-citizen transformation goes is precisely the prevalence of the violent psyche against women. The violence against children also falls in the gender domain.
Moreover, if civil society is that sphere of society located outside the state sphere, the section of society which has always been dis-empowered and located outside the sphere of state power since time immemorial, is women. That by itself makes them potentially the most vibrant members of civil society as they ‘have nothing to lose but their chains’ to use Marx’s famous phrase.
However, a significant characteristic feature of a civil society is its capacity to engage the state. In the case of women’s civic organizations and those working on gender issues, the experience of the EPRDF’s attitude towards women was that of restriction. Like all civic organizations, those working on gender were also subject to restrictions and sometimes intimidation. The EPRDF’s policy was to dominate all spheres of organized, active social life and it left no stone unturned to dominate organizations working on gender issues too. It established phantom ‘institutions’ in the name of the Women’s Affairs Office under the Prime Minister’s Office and a number of ‘women’s associations’ under regional governments in Addis Ababa, Amhara, Tigray, Oromiya, SNNPS and so on. These ‘associations’ were appendages to the EPRDF as mass organizations of the vanguard party. They were not independent at all, and cannot be one as they are all set up and led by EPRDF cadres, and follow the party line and implement its policies.
From the macro perspective, the state, by definition, cannot cover all areas of development by excluding the independent participation of civil society. Then, even if it is a state with a profound knowledge of gender and with a wonderful policy of emancipating women, the independent participation of civil society is still crucial. Now, as we have seen earlier, the EPRDF had serious limitations on this score. It had no profound knowledge of gender as it is stuck with the old Leninist formula of the ‘woman question’. It follows that it did not have an emancipatory policy either. The consequence is enormous. Like other development disciplines that constitute the domains of sustainable development, the EPRDF created a vacuum by systematically excluding and stifling civic associations without delivering the solutions to the problems of Ethiopian women.
The impact of this restrictive policy is enormous. It has stifled the emergence of independent civic associations among which are also women’s associations and NGOs working on gender issues. This is the severest blow to the cause of women’s emancipation as it robs women of their most important capability to emancipate themselves: independent participation. Having followed such a stifling policy, the EPRDF also failed to develop its own institutions of governance to the level of a fully-fledged state. A government in power can only attain such level of institutional development through interaction and response to independent civic intervention. It is the massive intervention of civic groups that prompts a government to move to its rightful role of regulating rather than controlling and dominating society. And it is only such a role that in turn can galvanize the process of deconstructing poverty and under-development.
In the post-EPRDF period, Ethiopia is entering a new phase particularly in the political sense. We are living now in a new era where freedom of expression and organization prevail. This constitutes initial step towards a negation of all the harm that the EPRDF’s policy has done to this country. Hope and despair prevail in the wake of the end of EPRDF’s rule. The country seems still to be suffering from the seeds of destruction that the EPRDF sowed. One of these is the complete silence on the part of the political elite on the conditions of women and the need for a strategy for their emancipation. As we have indicated above, gender in general and the emancipation of women in particular is pivotal to the cause of both development and democracy. The most alarming phenomenon in this respect is the fact all political parties without exception have opted to keep quiet about this crucial discipline. All aspire and dream how to capture power but not how to emancipate women. NGOs, scholars and intellectuals in general should challenge political parties in this country to dwell on strategies of development and emancipation of women. Above all, they should be exemplary particularly to the youth in humane and gender-sensitive behavior towards women. We are talking here about half the population.
This article is drawn from my book ‘State’ and ‘Civil Society’ in Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s Development Challenges.
Ed.’s Note: the writer can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.