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Birtukan Midekssa is a former federal judge and leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Ethiopia.

Hailed as the Aung San Suu Kyi of her country, she was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections. After eighteen months in prison, she was pardoned in 2007 following a series of high-level negotiations. Upon her release, she founded the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) and was elected its first chairperson. In 2008, she was rearrested for allegedly having violated the terms of her pardon and remained in prison for almost two more years. In 2010, she was shortlisted for the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Prior to entering politics, Ms. Midekssa served as a defense attorney and federal judge, rendering numerous court decisions in support of the rule of law and in defense of fundamental constitutional liberties. She drew the ire of the Ethiopian government when she presided as a judge in a high profile corruption case involving the former defense minister, Siye Abraha. Ms. Midekssa released Abraha for lack of evidence, but the government immediately rearrested him and sent him to jail for seven years. The government’s contempt for the rule of law helped motivate Birtukan Midekssa to become active in politics.

She was selected as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow for 2011-2012 at the National Endowment for Democracy and as a Scholar at Risk Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University for 2012 - 2013. 

Women as leaders in Ethiopian society. Let me just try to focus on only political leadership. In a way, it’s – the irony is like if you look into the political history of the governing party when they were engaged in an armed struggle, like 30 percent of the soldiers, they were women. And you know, they were known for taking women as partners – equal partners, you know, in any kind of political stride. And after they came to power, you know, they just came up with their masculine face. You know what I mean? You don’t find anybody with significant influence within the party with you who is a woman, you know?

So even that process – the struggle of this party which is in power, which accommodates the participation of women, you know, it didn’t achieve anything; it didn’t bring about anything in terms of empowering women, in terms of political leadership. That’s really saddening. Yeah, but – yeah, you know, always equality and empowerment and all those things are directly correlated with having democracy, whether internally or in the national political sphere. So you know, a political party known for autocratic method of, you know, political process couldn’t kind of assure, you know, equality for women in any way.

When we – when you come to opposition politics, of course there are a lot of obstacles for women to come to political participation, the opposition. Of course there is a cultural component into it. But there is also, you know, this difficulty with regards to the role as a mother or, you know, as a – you know, as somebody who takes care of the family affairs, you know. I remember when we were in prison in 2005, of course many women, you know, had to share that plight. And the saddening part was, you know, those mothers, you know, had to – their suffering was kind of double-fold, you know?

They suffered as prisoners, you know, facing that horrible condition in prison, and they suffer as mothers leaving behind their children and, you know, seeing that the family members and that the family as a whole facing all kinds of challenge because of their absence. And even one of my co-defendants, she was a journalist. And we were in prison, she realized she was pregnant. And she had to spend that time of her pregnancy in a very bad prison condition. She had to live with 70 people in a very packed manner, you know what I mean, very narrow cell and with all kind – types of criminals, you know, murderers, you know, people who committed robbery and all kinds of crimes. And even mentally ill people, you know, were supposed to live with us. She had to endure all that, you know. She was – she was having her own medical problem and she wanted, you know, the normal prenatal care, but she didn’t have it. And she had to handle that kind of living environment. And she had to give birth to her first child while we were there.

So the realm of political opposition for women, you know, the challenge it poses is kind of double-fold, because of the role they have in the society as mothers, as wives and, you know, as a responsible woman, you know, taking care of the well-being of the family. So that is, in a way, discouraging for a woman to come at the forefront. But regardless of this, you find very strong women, you know, in every level who dares to defy, and who committed their life to pay the price necessary for this noble cause and – but, you know, because of this cumulative factors, we don’t see the participation of women in political leadership and political participation as we need to. 

With a population of nearly 85 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. The population includes some 80 ethnic groups, with the largest being the Oromo and the Amhara. The majority of the population is Christian, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, but there is also a significant Muslim minority.

The Ethiopian economy is based primarily on agriculture, with a growing services sector and one of the largest GDP growth rates in Africa in recent years. Main industries include food processing and textiles, and the most important export goods are coffee and gold. While unemployment is high and the country has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world, the current government has instituted economic reforms and begun a process of privatization of state enterprises.

Until 1974, Ethiopia was a monarchy, ruled by a dynasty that traced its roots to the 2nd century B.C. Unlike most of the African continent, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power and has long been recognized as a sovereign country.

The downfall of the monarchy led to the establishment of a socialist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Mengistu regime received significant aid from the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. Ethiopia suffered a series of internal and external conflicts, calamitous droughts, massive famines, and refugee crises during the 1970s and 1980s. The Mengistu regime was a harsh dictatorship with little tolerance for dissent. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 10,000 people died under what has been called the “Red Terror,” although the exact number is unknown.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposition groups united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They ousted the Mengistu regime in May 1991. A new constitution and political reforms led to the first multiparty elections in 1995. Over time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF tightened their grip on power by promoting ethnic federalism through which power is given to regional and ethnically based authorities. The 2005 elections were deeply troubled, with violence and widespread accusations of fraud. A number of prominent opposition leaders were accused of inciting violence and held as political prisoners for calling a general strike and boycotting the new parliament.

The flawed 2010 elections resulted in an EPRDF landslide, with only 2 seats going to the opposition. A crackdown on opposition parties, civil society, and the media prior to the elections further limited political space in the country. Since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn has served as prime minister.

Freedom House describes Ethiopia as “not free,” with both the civil liberties and political rights given a rating of 6, with 1 regarded as most free and 7 as least free. 

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Birtukan Midekssa: Role of Women “You find very strong women but we don’t see the participation of women in political leadership.”

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