Skip to main content
x
The pioneer activist
Sylvia Pankhurst

The pioneer activist

Ethiopian heroine Sylvia Pankhurst would have been fighting for gender equality if she were alive today, according to her family.

The late campaigner – the only foreigner to be awarded a state funeral – would have questioned the prevailing attitudes among many Ethiopians that boys are better than girls.

Her granddaughter Helen said Sylvia Pankhurst was thoroughly devoted to the country after moving here in the 1950s.

She said her radical relative would have been pushing for “positive changes” to end the current discrimination against the female sex.

Helen Pankhurst (PhD) said: “One continuity in Sylvia’s life was her ongoing struggle for gender equality, even in her final years in Ethiopia.

“I wonder what she would make of women’s lives here today. Gender inequality still prevails and the voice of women and girls continues to be muted; the opportunities constrained, particularly in many rural areas.”

Ethiopia has an appalling record for women’s rights and ranks 115th out of 144 countries in the Gender Gap Index.

Around 80 percent live in the rural areas and women provide the majority of the agricultural labor. Only 49 percent of girls go to primary school and many miss lessons because they have to fetch water or do household chores. The majority of those will not make it to secondary school.

In some regions, 48 percent of girls were married before the age of 15 and female genital mutilation is widespread.

Helen Pankhurst, herself a charity worker and campaigner in Ethiopia, said the plight of the country’s girls would “resonate strongly” with her famous relative: “She would have understood the need to question social norms and the transformational power of girls being treated equally. She would also have recognized how much is still to be done.”

Helen Pankhurst spoke to BBC Radio 4 about the power of education to bring people out of darkness, adding: “From everything that I know and have heard about Sylvia’s devotion to Ethiopia and her fondness for its people, I’m sure she would have focused on this possibility of positive change, determined to keep pushing for it.”

In her native Britain, Sylvia Pankhurst is remembered as a prominent campaigner for the Suffragette movement, which demanded votes for women.

Her mother Emmeline was famously noted for her militant tactics, including hunger strikes, to get the establishment to listen to their voices.

Helen’s interview was to mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People’s Act, which allowed some women the right to vote in the UK.

During the interview, she recalled her grandmother’s time in Ethiopia, noting there is a street and coffee shop named in her honor.

Sylvia Pankhurst was anti-fascist and anti-colonialist and turned her attention to Ethiopia after its invasion by Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1935.

When she thought the plight of the Ethiopians was being ignored by the world, she established the publication New Times and Ethiopian News.

Her London home had also become a safe house for those fleeing the fight. When Emperor Haile-Selassie I arrived in exile to the UK in June 1936, Sylvia was part of the unofficial welcoming committee. It was the start of a friendship that would last until her death.

Her anti-colonialist stance set her at odds with the British government, who she suspected of having its own imperialist ideas after they helped liberate Ethiopia in 1941.

She continued to campaign throughout the 1940s and was called a “blister” by some of her fellow-countrymen who said she “should be choked to death with her own pamphlets.”

Sylvia moved to Addis Ababa with her son in 1956 at the invitation of Emperor Haile-Selassie, who gave her a house.

She founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, to highlight the positive aspects of the nation and worked tirelessly, eventually dying of a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 78.

She was called an “honorary Ethiopian” by Emperor Selassie and awarded a state funeral before burial at Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Sylvia Pankhurst said she often questions how her grandmother reconciled the Emperor’s authoritarian style with her own left-wing egalitarian politics. Family and friends say she believed at the time there was no alternative.

The Pankhurst family still live in the home in Addis Ababa and after her death, her son Richard continued her passionate good work. A renowned historian, he became a professor at Addis Ababa University and fought alongside his wife Rita for the return of plundered relics, including the Aksum Obelisk. He died last year aged 89 and is also buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Richard and Rita’s daughter Helen, a senior adviser for the charity CARE International, lives in her grandmother’s old room when she is in the country for work.

CARE International is a leading humanitarian agency and has been working in Ethiopia since 1984.

One of their current projects is working with young girls and their families in remote parts of the country to promote gender equality.

The charity runs workshops to tackle discrimination and the poor attitudes that pervade many villages.

Helen Pankhurst, whose middle name is Sylvia, said there is a sense of continuity when comparing her life to her grandmother’s. In the radio interview, she said an interest in Ethiopia and feminism are the “two pillars that are most important to me.”

While there is a Pankhurst in Addis, it seems that the girls of Ethiopia will continue to have a champion fighting for their equal rights.

Ed.’s Note: Jane Wharton is a volunteer at The Reporter.

Contributed by Jane Wharton