Building on gender policy reforms in Ethiopia

January 9, 2013
by Marcia MacNeil

thiopians have a saying: “Little by little, the egg begins to walk." This is certainly true of step-by-step progress towards gender equality on the African continent. Sometimes, however, that little egg gets a boost when seemingly unrelated policy reforms act together to reinforce and strengthen their impact on women’s empowerment. 

A  study by IFPRI researchers Neha Kumar and Agnes Quisumbing looks at this occurrence in Ethiopia. The authors note that two recent policy reforms in Ethiopia—community-based land registration and a reform to the Family Code—build on each other to improve women’s status.  

Gender norms in Ethiopia vary widely depending on geographic location, ethnicity, and religion, especially related to property ownership, inheritance, and the division of assets after divorce. However, one norm transcends most regions:  disputes are usually settled by community arbitrators—older men in the family or community—which has meant, until recently, that most cases are settled in favor of the man.

A new Family Code has changed all that. Passed in 2000, it gives equal rights to women in marriage and it requires all assets be divided equally among both partners in the case of a divorce. By now, all the states in Ethiopia have approved this new Code.

At around the same time, the Ethiopian government embarked on a comprehensive land registration process.  

This process included a requirement that the land administration committees at the kebele level, the smallest administrative unit, have at least one female member. This has not only increased women’s participation and knowledge about land tenure (without discouraging men’s participation) but also has increased information and awareness of the new Family Code, and even shifted perceptions about the equal division of assets following divorce. 

In other words, because these two diverse policies have inter-related gender-sensitive elements, taken together, they serve to reinforce women’s rights and welfare in the country. 

Ethiopia is one of many developing countries implementing gender policy reforms, especially regarding women’s equal access to assets and resources. The study’s authors see Ethiopia’s complementary reforms as a replicable model that can provide a great opportunity to give the “egg” of women’s equality and empowerment some serious legs.