Does Top Down Equality Work?

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Written by Coby Jones

Last month, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed reshuffled his Cabinet and appointed 50% of these seats to women. In an attempt to implement reforms demanded by the public amid political and security unrest, Abiy Ahmed appointed 10 new members and retained a few old members of the last government’s regime. Additionally, just last week, Ethiopia appointed its first female president. For the first time in the nation’s long history, women will hold powerful and significant positions in the government, hopefully heralding a new era of gender equality for all. And yet, Ethiopia ranks 115th in the Global Gender Gap Report and 173 on the Gender Equality Index, indicating that equality is something that is still very far out of reach for many Ethiopian citizens.

Do gestures of equality that begin at the top reach the average citizen at the bottom? Where does societal change really happen?

To answer this, we can look to other nations that have recently made similar gestures when it comes to advancing a more gender equal agenda. Most recently, Saudi Arabia made such a gesture when it granted women the right to drive, a right and privilege previously unknown to Saudi women. Many looked at this moment in history as a first step in living up to Crown Prince Bin Salman’s views of women being “absolutely” equal.

When looked at closely however, we know that these statements and gestures of equality that happen on a high level, don’t equal real cultural change throughout society. The very women who advocated for the right to drive have been detained and a few have disappeared completely. Cars owned by women have been set on fire in the streets. These actions taken by both the Saudi Government as well as its citizens show us that these gestures are just that, and not action towards meaningful, lasting change.

This isn’t a struggle only relegated to countries in Africa or the Middle east. Canada and the United States also make gestures that fall short of the gender equality mark. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a globally renowned gender rights advocate, made waves when he appointed an ethnically diverse, gender balanced cabinet when he first took office. Yet, the Canadian government has failed when it comes to identifying and addressing the systematic causes of violence against indigenous women and girls. The United States, similarly, has several women in high ranking political positions like Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Yet, the United States has also failed miserably in fostering gender equality on many fronts from attempting to erase words that create inclusive environments such as transgender, to being the only developed nation with an increasing maternal mortality rate.

There are success stories of countries that have been able to make real change for gender equality culturally such as Rwanda. Women hold nearly 68% of seats in the Rwandan Parliament, but this is not just a gesture of equality. Rwanda as a country also Ranks 5th in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, the only African country to make it to the top 10 spaces. Though citizens of Rwanda still struggle with terms such as ‘feminist’ and violence against women still permeates all levels of society, there are many positive cultural movements that are enshrined in government policy but also come from the people themselves.

For Ethiopia to make the same kinds of cultural change that Rwanda has, gestures of equality are going to have to impact the citizens, as well as top level government officials. A gender equal Cabinet is not enough. There will need to be many more concentrated efforts to foster true cultural change towards equality.