Jama Musse Jama

Lama helo wadaadow, waxaan cidi ku hawsheene!
(Ohi my people! nothing good is got for free)
 – A poem by Cabdillaahi Suldaan Timacadde, 1960.

Times change. At the end of last year, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced a new cabinet lineup of ministers comprising of 50 percent women, and he has also been working to promote nominations to other prominent positions of women in the new Ethiopian ruling system. However, gender empowerment did not just come by chance. Ethiopia has had its sights on this evolution for a long time, working hard to make that vision a reality, focusing on education and opportunities for their daughters of today to become the powerful Ethiopian women of tomorrow. 

Ethiopia has a population currently estimated to be over 90 million, of which women account for 49.9 million. In 1993, the country declared its commitment to gender equality with the announcement of a National Policy on Women. This commitment was reaffirmed in the Federal Constitution of 1995. The Ethiopian Education and Training Policy promotes equitable access to education and training for girls and boys, and includes provisions for mainstreaming gender equality in national curricula.

“This is an ambitious and transformational vision,” according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, one that “places education and training at the heart of the gear.” Consequently, gender-oriented human resource development has been a key priority since the adoption of the Ethiopian Education and Training Policy in 1994.

Women and science
I recently came across a striking article in the Ethiopian Airlines magazine, Selamta, which featured a number of high-profile Ethiopian women who are now shaping science worldwide. Dr. Segnet Kelemu, an award-winner for her scientific work, including the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture's (CIAT) Outstanding Scientist of the Year, is dedicated to improving crops in Africa. Her PhD in Plant Pathology and Molecular Biology from Kansas University was followed by postdoctoral research in molecular determents of pathogenesis at Cornell University. Dr. Kelemu is now based in Nairobi where she studies the microorganisms that exist in plants growing across the plains of Africa to understand how plants survive the often harsh weather patterns.  

Dr. Sossina Haile is a chemist who likes to think big. She is revolutionizing energy with her invention of the first solid acid fuel cell to reduce pollution. Dr. Haile, who has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Materials Science and Engineering, works with a new compound called "superprotonic" in order to provide clean energy. She is currently a professor at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering.

Dr. Mahlet Mesfin, who describes herself as a "lover of science and tech, international affairs, equity, justice and adventures," has a PhD in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied traumatic brain injury. Her doctoral program focused on connections between micro-world proteins and the macro-world of societal and science issues. Currently the Deputy Director of the Centre for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Mesfin is also Executive Editor of the open–access policy journal Science and Diplomacy.

Finally, Dr. Timnit Gebru is the technical co-leader of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google, having obtained her PhD from Stanford University. She is a computer scientist at the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI), working on algorithmic bias and data mining, and is an advocate for diversity in technology. Dr. Gebru is cofounder of “Black in AI,” which is a community of black researchers working in AI.  

Not only in science, but also in art, culture and sports
Ethiopian women are also being recognized for their influential positions in art, culture and music. Award-winning novelist Maaza Mengiste is about to launch her second novel, The Shadow King, at the Hargeysa Book Fair in Somaliland. Meanwhile, women’s rights activists Meaza Ashenafi, Yetnebersh Nigussie and Zemi Yunus (the latter being a focal campaigner for children with autism and their mothers in Ethiopia), have made strides for social justice. Others include musician and nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, known as "the Honky Tonk Nun" for her jazzy, bluesy piano style, is renowned for her independence as an early female traveler, among other things; Ejegayehu Shebabaw, whose voice is loved by young Ethiopians; the prolific visual artist, Julie Mehretu, known for her multi-layered paintings of abstracted landscapes; world champion athlete Tirunesh Dibaba, who became the first woman to win Olympic gold medals in both the 5000-metre and 10000-metre races; and Meseret Defar Tola, the long-distance runner who predominantly competes in the 3000-metre and 5000-metre events.

The list continues: Reeyot Alemu, a formerly jailed journalist, is now working in the US; Tsedale Lemma, a former journalist in exile who returned and now edits the Addis Standard in Ethiopia; Birtukan Mideksa, who was a jailed political party leader and is now in charge of overseeing the electoral process in Ethiopia.  

In art, culture, sport and activism, the world notices the presence of Ethiopian women. Captain Amsale Gualu, the first female Ethiopian Airlines pilot, who also led the first all-women Ethiopian flight, said that “this flight shows us that if women get equal opportunities and work hard, I’m sure they can achieve whatever they want in all fields including the aviation industry.” While celebrating the achievements of these women on their own terms, I’m interested in the ways their achievements are also a testament to an Ethiopian system that allows women to unlock their creative and intellectual potential. The true empowerment of women comes with education, and this new generation of educated women differs from the previous ones because they demand their rights and are conscious of the fact that, with equal rights, access and empowerment, women in Africa can be the real agents of change.

Prioritizing leadership 
In Ethiopia, women filling positions of leadership show the resources invested in women over the last twenty-five years paying off. Ethiopia's long-term planning and strong policy decisions have allowed women to get the right positions in power across diverse sectors of society.  It is worth mentioning that four out of the six women ministers in Ethiopia have a PhD, exactly mirrored by their male counterparts, of which four out of six also have a PhD. I am certain that this will have a marked impact on the Horn of Africa region - specifically within the widely-spread Somali diaspora. Let us all rejoice, welcome and support this encouraging trend as a harbinger of a new dawn of freedom, peace, progress and dignity.

A question worth asking is how the rest of Africa, and in particular my home country, Somaliland, might respond to this change? Africa has a long way to go in this regard. Ethiopia, along with Rwanda, remain exceptions. Education for girls is a priority only on paper, and there are no proper incentives for its implementation. The recent announcement by the University of Hargeisa that 46 percent of the university population are women is certainly encouraging. Dr. Edna Adan’s sensational discourse, confirming that medical schools in Somaliland have 70 percent women students, and her delight in the fact that she can “... go to the operations theatre, and I see a senior medical doctor, woman sergeant, assisted by another woman anaesthetist, and a woman instrument assistant nurse and a woman operations supervisor, in a hospital built by a woman…” are certainly remarkable. But we need forceful policy reforms in our education system that genuinely support girls and young women to have the same opportunities and voices as their male counterparts.

Women in Somaliland
In Somaliland, there are structural barriers including laws that remain stuck in parliament awaiting approval.  These desperately need our attention in order to advance our investment in our young girls of today. The leadership in each sector must reflect on this subject and make it a priority. Building the capacity of civil society institutions to foster a new generation of educated women, activists who can support other women, or scholars who can impact positively on the wider society, is essential, but in the more immediate term, we need to identify the existing individual cases of young women with the greatest potential and support them directly by giving space and visibility, as well as further education. Targeted headhunting should be used to identify these potential leaders now, with a program of education and exposure introduced to help improve their chances of success. As the poem quoted above reminds us, “nothing good is got for free." We need to collectively review our priorities and put our girls' education at the top of the list. This is the only way our society can grow collectively and sustainably.

A Somali proverb says "Xaglo laaban, xoolo kuma yimaaddaan" (“Who will not work, shall not get wealth”); we need to work towards these challenges in our minds.

Jama Musse Jama is an ethno-mathematician with a PhD in African Studies specialising in Computational Linguistics of African Languages. He has authored and edited several books, and researches traditional African games and their potential within formal education. A cultural activist, historical researcher and a preserver of Somali oral histories, he is the founder of Hargeysa Cultural Centre and the influential Hargeysa International Book Fair. Twitter @jamamusse