Women Deliver President/CEO Katja Iversen discusses women in leadership and links between sexual and reproductive health and rights and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) to advance gender equality with the first female President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde.
Katja Iversen: You have had a remarkable career, breaking down barriers as the first woman to hold several leadership positions across the UN and now as President of Ethiopia. How did you find the strength, the power, and the resilience to pursue this pathway to change?
President Sahle-Work Zewde: For me strength, resilience and power are all learned and accumulated over time. The more you know about yourself, excel at the work you do and understand the world you live in, the more you realize how nothing worthwhile in life comes without a fight and a lot of patience. When I look back at my life that is what I observe – my resilience and determination grew with every challenge life threw my way. With each opportunity and new position, I had the fortune of holding, I always made sure to be humble enough to learn what I did not know and confident enough to never forget my self-worth. That self belief made me aspire for more while discharging my duties to the best of my abilities.
Through all this, it is important to recognize the role of the many people who believed in me, trusted me with positions of power at a young age in the world of diplomacy and much later in life as well. Because, we are who we are through our connections and the people around us. And I have been so blessed to work with and be recognized by many remarkable people who have opened doors of opportunities to me.
Katja Iversen: You are the first female President in Ethiopia and currently the only female Head of State in Africa. This creates a critical opportunity for you to influence policies and priorities that advance gender equality not just nationally but also across the continent. Given Ethiopia’s standing on the continent and your expertise from your recent role as the UN special representative to the African Union, how will you – and Ethiopia more broadly – use your power to encourage other leaders across Africa to prioritize the health and rights of girls and women and to accelerate action toward gender equality across the continent?
President Sahle-Work Zewde: As the President of Ethiopia I hope to do my part and use my position in two ways. The first one is by pushing for the implementation of laws and policies that Ethiopia has in place, including regional human rights instruments. By implementation I mean going beyond the rhetoric and transforming social norms and strengthening the systems and structures in place and monitoring the progress regularly. This can be done in three ways:
- Individual empowerment – Investing in young women students and women entrepreneurs. Recognizing, celebrating and uplifting seasoned role models for young people and high achieving students. Building connections between them through my Gender Transformative Universities Project.
- Social norm transformation – I will work to shine a light on positive indigenous social norms to magnify and highlight the ones that are harmful and need changing. I will push for National Gender Audits to be conducted and undertake sustained dialogue on Gender Equality. This is especially important in higher education institutions since these are perfect entry points into the different regions in our country and a give us the perfect setting for learning and growing.
- Structural intervention – by bringing different stakeholders with structural power together to push for meaningful reforms. What is currently missing is alignment and collaboration. Good ideas and efforts are everywhere. I will use my power to create all the platforms necessary for these connections to happen.
There is a lot we can learn from one another at a continental level on how to build an inclusive and just society. We are ready to exchange with our African sisters and brothers to move our continent forward.
Katja Iversen: Around the world, we are seeing more governments commit to advance gender equality and promote women in leadership. How can we – as individuals, communities, and organizations – hold governments accountable to these commitments, to realize equal rights and opportunities for all girls and women? Please give an example and concrete suggestions.
President Sahle-Work Zewde: I think when we speak of accountability we should also think of sustainability.
How can we not only set goals, make plans and meet once in a while to see how things are going, but also make sure these accountability mechanisms are internal, sustained and predictable?
The best way to make this happen is to strengthen civil society organizations within member states. As our governments do their very best to keep their promises and deliver on Gender Equality and all other SDGs, we should remember that the best way to keep them and us on our toes is to have local committed advocates who are strong and well established to push the cause of Gender Equality and keep the standard of delivery high. These should be grassroots groups who properly understand the lives of our people and their needs.
In addition to this, all of us need to take our role seriously and use every opportunity we get to put women and girls on the agenda as a central issue and not as an after thought. I made that public commitment on the first day I took office and have not relented ever since.
Katja Iversen: You recently joined us at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference where we, alongside more than 8,000 advocates and leaders from around the world, discussed power, and how it can drive – or hinder – progress and change. This is a topic you have also written about, highlighting the need to redistribute power and close gender pay gaps. In addition to these key issues, how will you prioritize gender equality during your administration? Please share the specific areas you will focus on.
President Sahle-Work Zewde: As I said on the day I took office, I will be focusing on Gender Equality and advocate for Women’s Rights. Gender Equality is a complex problem. It is something that we have to tackle from multiple sides and using varying approaches. With this understanding in mind and the need to focus and conduct impactful work I will be focusing on the following major areas and designing projects within that framework.
The first one is in the education sector – supporting female university students. This is intended to make sure we are nurturing the female leaders of tomorrow and that the small percentage of female students that enter our universities excel and graduate with a chance to become a young leader. The improvement of access to education is directly linked to health outcomes for women – specially on reproductive health issues.
My second area of focus is women’s economic empowerment. I would like to facilitate the establishment of a network of women’s organizations working on women’s economic empowerment and create much needed platforms so that more attention and investment is given to women entrepreneurs.
A national program for the advocacy and policy discussions on gender equality is my third area of focus. This is one of the many areas of partnership with our Federal Ministry of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs. The goal is to change the depth and focus of the national women’s day celebration by providing more time and engaging several line ministries to make sure that gender equality is not merely a one day a year rhetoric.
And finally an initiative that brings all the other projects together with a long term impact is my work on the National Gender Road Map. This effort will bring together multiple stakeholders and will strive to provide a clear and strategic framework for the advancement of gender equality nation wide.
Katja Iversen: This month, during the UN General Assembly (UNGA), world leaders will meet for the first High Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Ethiopia has made tremendous progress toward ensuring all Ethiopian people have access to quality health services without facing financial hardship. I was happy to see your country renew its commitment to UHC earlier this year, and thrilled to be at the opening of the state of the art St. Paul Center for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine in Addis Ababa in February. How is Ethiopia prioritizing the health of girls and women, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights, within broader efforts to achieve UHC and why do you think this is important to Ethiopia’s development?
President Sahle-Work Zewde: The health of girls and women is directly linked to and imperative to achieving our development goals. This understanding is changing the priorities of many countries including Ethiopia. The impact of health and especially reproductive health on the productivity of our citizens, the health and nutrition of the family and the future of our children is very critical.
That is why our Ministry of Health is working more than ever to improve the reproductive health of women by reaching out to the most rural parts of the country through health workers who understand the community more than anyone else. This is also why we have been working on a national road map to end child marriage and FGM that was launched a few weeks ago.
These efforts are all the result of a firm belief in the importance of UHC and the sexual and reproductive health of girls and women. This is not a women’s issue, this is a national issue and it is being treated as such.
Katja Iversen: At the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, you spoke about the ability of girls and women in rural communities to identify and execute solutions that lift up economies, shift gender norms, and power progress for all. Unfortunately, we know girls and women are often left out of these critical conversation – this is something you are uniquely positioned to change. How can leaders – including yourself – give girls and women a seat and a voice at the table to make decisions about programs, policies, and financial investments that affect their lives? Please be specific and share examples based on your leadership.
President Sahle-Work Zewde: I will say two things on this. In order to include women and girls in the decisions that impact their lives we ought to do two things. The first one is recognize that this is an absolutely fundamental thing to building sustainable solutions and systems that are truly gender transformative. It is often done as an after thought to silence critiques. It should be the first thing that comes to mind at the start of any project, discussion or policy design. All of the rooms we are in should reflect the real world we live in and women are 51% of the population. But this will require patience and persistence.
Secondly, we need to realize that we all have gender biases that affect the way we look at women and girls. As people raised in a largely patriarchal culture both women and men struggle with this. That means even when we think we are not discriminating based on gender we might actually be perpetuating sexist practices. Therefore, we need to recognize that changing our board rooms, work places and nations starts with changing how we ourselves, even those of us who are gender equality champions, see women’s place in the world and express that in our decisions.
As a way forward, I would urge my fellow leaders, specially those in Africa, to empower the women in their country, trust their work, value their opinions and allow them to flourish. The most critical step in this effort is to stop holding women to an unfairly high standard and subject them to needless scrutiny that does not apply to men whenever they are given a certain position or responsibility.
Trust women, that is the first step in making room for them.
Because you don’t elevate those you don’t consider trustworthy. I would like to emphasize that this access to leadership and participation is not a favor we do for women; this is their Human Right. Respecting their rights to equal access and participation will transform our nations.
Katja Iversen: Your position as President is an inspiration to young girls and women across Ethiopia and around the world. What advice would you offer to these girls and women as they strive to become leaders in their families, communities, countries and on the global stage?
President Sahle-Work Zewde: To the women and girls reading this I would like to say please know that you are strong and can be leaders in the spaces that you already occupy. Specially to the young women, know that leadership is not about being in a high level position, getting some title or a political office. Some of the best leaders in the world never had formal titles and offices. They took risks and did what needed to be done. Leadership is an attitude and starts with paying attention to your environment and having a sense of responsibility. You can nurture this wherever you are. To the women out there building careers, leading households, serving their communities and countries – the world owes you a debt of gratitude. There is so much that you do, that often goes unnoticed. To change that, we ought to shine a light on each other’s work and lift up the young women around us. We really are each others keepers.