PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Chief Justice (Ethiopia)
By Biruh Gemeda Gage
Meaza Ashenafi Mengistu is the first woman in Ethiopian history to become the President of the Federal Supreme Court (Chief Justice). However, this milestone is not the only accomplishment that makes her a pioneer woman in law. She is well-known as a women’s rights advocate who has made immense contributions, among other things, as the co-founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) and founder of women’s bank (Enat Bank). Both organizations were the first of their kind in Ethiopia.
Meaza was born on the 25th of July 1964 in a small town called Assosa, now the capital of Benishangul-Gumuz regional state, one of the smallest and least developed regions in Ethiopia. Her father Ashenafi Mengistu was the mayor of Assosa. Hence, Meaza and her eight siblings attended primary and secondary school there. Her mother, Askalech Tegegne, worked at home managing a household of about a dozen people and raising nine children. Meaza says her mother is the source of her strength and played a big role in her success by instilling important values like honesty and fairness at an early age and by encouraging her to study hard even though she never received formal education herself. These values coupled with Meaza’s personality of speaking truth to power and being unafraid to challenge authority, especially when witnessing injustice or discrimination, led her to pursue law as a choice of study.
Meaza loved learning and was always one of the top students in her class. She was able to join Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 1981 when she was seventeen because she started primary school early and skipped one year in high school as her grades were very good. When she joined the school of law at AAU, she was the only woman out of fifty students, until the next year when three more women joined the class. This, she says, was very challenging but was also a good opportunity to grow. After graduating from university in 1986, she worked for the Ministry of Trade for about three years. Meaza started her career in the Judiciary through a fresh graduates’ recruitment program which sought to alleviate the shortage of judges by appointing qualified young professionals after giving them six months of training working as assistants to judges. Accordingly, she became a judge to the Federal High Court Criminal Bench in 1989 and served there for five years. It was during this time that she noticed how the law itself and the way it was being implemented was discriminatory against women.
In 1993, she was recruited as a researcher and advisor for the Human Rights Committee of the Ethiopian Constitution Drafting Commission, a body in charge of drafting the current constitution. There, she played a key role by helping draft strong regulations for the protection of women’s and children’s rights. While she was working in the commission, she was sent to The Hague for training where she was introduced to issues of international human rights and met with various African women advocating for women’s rights.
After the job with the constitution drafting commission was completed, Meaza wanted to realize her vision of creating an entity that would make sure laws enacted to protect women’s rights are implemented meaningfully. To that end, in 1995, she co-founded Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) together with Atsedewoyin Tekle and other women lawyers. It started its operations the following year and Meaza served as the Executive Directress of the association for eight years. EWLA’s mission is to promote the economic, political, social, and legal rights of women and to that end assist them to secure full protection of their rights under the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and other international human rights conventions.
Together with the co-founders and colleagues of EWLA, Meaza has helped introduce major amendments to the Ethiopian family law, criminal law, labor law, citizenship law, pension law, and other national laws in favor of women’s rights. One good example of the impact EWLA had on improving criminal legislation is the role it played in criminalizing domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Before that, neither domestic violence nor sexual harassment were considered crimes in Ethiopia. Even the Amharic language, the country’s official language, didn’t have a vocabulary to express those acts. Meaza says they had to create the phrase “yesetoch teqat” to refer to all violence against women.
Equally important, EWLA was able to open centers where victims and vulnerable women could go and get free legal advice in Addis Ababa and regional towns. They also have about 60 paralegals made up of volunteers which give similar services to women. Overall, EWLA helped more than 100,000 women (during the time Meaza was leading the organization) and they were able to represent women in major cases relating to the abduction of women and other harmful traditional practices. One of the many prominent cases that made EWLA and Meaza popular was the story of a 14-year-old girl who killed a man who abducted, raped, and tried to force her into marriage.
With Zeresenay Berhane as the producer and Angelina Jolie as its executive producer, this case was later turned into the 2014 Ethiopian film titled “Difret” which shows how Hirut (the victim represented by Meaza/EWLA) pleaded not guilty by reason of self-defense after fatally shooting the man who abducted and raped her. The film went on to win the ‘Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic’ Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
After EWLA, Meaza became the acting director of Inter-Africa Group which, among other things, facilitated the debates between different political parties in the 2002 Ethiopian national election. In 2005 she received a scholarship from UNESCO for post-graduate studies in the USA where she studied International Relations at the University of Connecticut. Starting from 2011, Meaza became an adviser to the Gender and Social Policy Development Department of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) for about six years. While working at the UNECA, Meaza volunteered to work for the establishment of the first women's Bank together with other women. Enat Bank, which translates to mean ‘mother bank’, was initiated by eleven Ethiopian women who had a vision of creating a bank that will be equally owned and managed by women. Finally, the bank that focuses on women was established in 2011 and started its operations in 2014. Meaza was selected to be the chair of the Board of Directors until the time she was appointed as chief justice in 2018.
Throughout the years, Meaza Ashenafi has gained domestic and international recognition for her tireless work in promoting women’s rights in Ethiopia and receiving numerous awards for philanthropy and leadership. In 2003, she became a Hunger Project African Leadership Prize laureate for her commitment to championing women's rights throughout her career. Meaza is always proud to mention that her husband has always been supportive of her career goals. She is married to Dr. Araya Asfaw, professor of physics and former dean of the science faculty in Addis Ababa University, whom she met while working in EWLA. They have two daughters, Mena and Senait. Apart from the support she got from her family, Meaza usually mentions the importance of teamwork for her success in her career.
In November 2018, Meaza was appointed as President of the Federal Supreme Court by the House of People’s Representatives (the Parliament) after being nominated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meaza believes that her appointment as the president of the Federal Supreme Court is the result of the recent political reforms in Ethiopia led by Abiy Ahmed but the unanimous support of the members of parliament to her appointment (without a single objection) is a testament to her accomplishments and the trust that the public has in her. As the president of the supreme court of Ethiopia, Meaza has chosen to restore the public’s trust in the judiciary as her main mission. In addition to that, improving gender parity in the judiciary will be another area of focus for her. In 2019 alone, six additional women were appointed as judges at the Federal Supreme Court and Meaza says that this will be continued in the future too. Meaza’s office also stresses the need to establish a women judges association for mutual learning and growth between senior and junior judges.
In general, Meaza Ashenafi was chosen as a pioneer woman most importantly because she is the first woman to be appointed as the President (chief justice) of the Supreme Court in Ethiopia’s history. However, her accomplishments before this appointment are more than enough to call her not only a pioneer woman but also a pioneer citizen. Being amongst the first group of women to join law school in Ethiopia and being part of the few women selected to participate as an expert in the drafting of the current Ethiopian constitution were her earliest accomplishments. She established and led the first professional association that advocated for women’s rights and the first women’s bank that aimed to empower women financially. When officials contacted her to propose the appointment, Meaza is quoted as saying, “I told them, if they want business as usual, I’m not the right person for this job.” (Aljazeera, 2015). That’s why I believe, besides her enormous accomplishments, Meaza’s character as an individual and her commitment to promoting justice without shying away from big responsibilities and challenges reaffirms her selection as a pioneer woman.