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Depending on whom is asked and which report is examined, the pace of progress on gender issues in Ethiopia runs the gamut. According to some, Ethiopian women in recent years have gained unprecedented ground in record speed in achieving equal access to health care, education and economic development. Others, however, paint a much less rosy picture, citing data that indicate Ethiopian society’s longstanding inequalities remain as entrenched and pervasive as ever.

To make their case, the former point to social trends and milestones established in the past 40 years. Literacy and education rates among women in rural communities, where some 85 percent of Ethiopians live, have increased dramatically in recent years. Today, more women per capita attend college than at any other time in the country’s history. And more women hold managerial positions in both public and private sectors.

“Ethiopian tradition has long held that a woman’s place is in the home. While we don’t expect that to change fully, there’s been a big jump,” explained Abeba Dantamo, the 48-year-old deputy administrator at the Medical Missionaries of Mary Counseling and Social Services Center in Addis Ababa.

“A lot has changed. In urban areas, some men are taking on traditional female roles in the household, and vice versa. And people are having more informal discussions about gender than before.”

For its part, the Ethiopian government has stepped up its effort to empower women. Adopted in 1994 and engendering the country’s first multiparty democratically elected government, Ethiopia’s Constitution includes a set of provisions explicitly providing for women’s rights, including a call to enact policies aimed at correcting historic gender discrimination.

Gradually, legislators have reformed Ethiopian law. In 2001, the government established the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to mainstream gender issues and promote gender equality. The same year, new legislation guaranteed women equal footing on issues related to marriage, parental authority, child custody and property. In 2005, a new penal code criminalized gender-based violence, including female genital cutting and domestic violence. More recently, the government has led an effort to recruit women to elected office.

In the past two decades, groups advancing women’s issues have also proliferated across the country, undertaking a wide range of activities, such as advocacy, monitoring government and providing social services. Ethiopia’s Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example, have established offices specifically for women’s issues.

“Women now have places to go if they have problems,” said Selam Yilma, a professor at Royal College in Addis Ababa who is preparing to launch a biannual scholarly journal on women’s issues.

But for some observers, Ethiopia’s gender gap remains vast. And though they concede much of the scaffolding for true gender equality has been erected, they point to a host of alarming data indicating that most of the heavy lifting remains to be done.

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Tags: Ethiopia Education Ethiopian Orthodox Church Women (rights/issues) Socioreligious programs