In Ethiopia’s latest move to empower women, the country’s Parliament on Thursday installed as Supreme Court president a women’s rights activist whose achievements were championed in a movie promoted by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.
Meaza Ashenafi was a judge on Ethiopia’s High Court from 1989 to 1992 and then an adviser to a commission writing up its new constitution. She also founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and helped start the first women’s bank in the country, Enat Bank.
Her most famous case, however, was turned into the 2014 Ethiopian film “Difret,” which was promoted by Jolie as executive producer and went on to win the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
The film is based on a court case, tried by Meaza, that resulted in outlawing the tradition of kidnapping girls to be forced into marriage in Ethiopia.
In 1996, Aberash Bekele, 14, was kidnapped on her way home from school by a man who intended to marry her. She escaped with a rifle and shot her kidnapper. She was then charged with murder.
Meaza succeeded in getting the charges dropped and set off a public debate over Ethiopia’s age-old tradition of kidnapping for marriage.
Meaza was selected to head the court by Ethiopia’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has taken measures to increase the role of women in what is widely described as a patriarchal society.
In presenting her to Parliament, Abiy said she would improve the court’s ability to implement reform in the country and the demands of justice and democracy.
“I have made the nomination with the firm belief that she has the capacity required, with her vast international experience in mind,” he said, according to the Reuters news agency. Parliament approved the nomination unanimously.
On Oct. 16, Abiy reshuffled his cabinet and, in an unprecedented move, named women to half the ministerial posts. Women now hold key portfolios such as defense and internal security. The following week, he nominated the country’s first female president.
The prime minister’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, described Meaza as one of the country’s “most seasoned lawyers.”
“She brings a track record of competence and relevant experience to the role,” he said in a tweet.
Although activists say that Ethiopia still has a long way to go and that women would struggle to overcome prejudices to get elected to office, these moves set important examples for young women.
While equal rights is enshrined in Ethiopian law, and there are national strategies to promote gender equality, women in the country suffer from discrimination, gender-based violence and unequal access to education, especially to secondary schools.
Underage marriage is also common in the countryside, where the majority of Ethiopians live.
Since coming to power in April, Abiy has undertaken several reforms, notably releasing thousands of political prisoners, inviting back exiled opposition leaders and pledging to open up the economy.