Ethiopia's ruling party is imposing female quotas on candidates in a bid to have more women in parliament, officials said on Friday. Women are guaranteed up to 30 percent of seats in the national elections for the incumbent Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Opposition groups have also taken up the "historic" move as political parities battle it out in the run up to the May 2005 federal and regional elections.
Ethiopia’s parliament has just 42 female members, contrasting with 505 men. Education Minister Genet Zewdie is the only female member of the 16-strong cabinet.
"For the country to be a true democracy women must be properly represented, Ethiopia Beyene, the vice chairman of the parliament women’s affairs standing committee, said. "The current number of women in parliament is just not good enough. Women have a major contribution to make so this is a very important step."
In the regional elections half of all candidates must be women, added Ethiopia, who has represented the EPRDF in parliament for the last nine years.
African nations are setting the pace on female representation. Rwanda has the largest number of women parliamentarians anywhere in the world, with 49 percent of seats, whereas in the US, France and Japan women hold one in 10 seats.
Ethiopia – which has less than half of the world average for female parliamentarians at 7 percent of seats - has faced stinging criticism for its poor impact in promoting women. World Bank President James Wolfensohn described the lack of women’s empowerment as "a national disgrace" during a four-day visit to the country.
A UN report on good governance released earlier this month also showed that Ethiopia lagged behind other African countries when it came to giving women a voice. There are also just four women ambassadors representing the country abroad.
Ethiopia said the minimum requirement of female candidates would be 25 percent. She said it was unlikely that there would be much opposition to the new scheme.
While the move has been welcomed in Ethiopia, initiatives to try and boost the number of women in other countries' parliaments have often proved controversial. In the UK, women-only shortlists for vacant or winnable seats were ruled illegal.
The EPRDF, which ousted Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, won 479 seats in the assembly in the last national elections in 2000. The four-strong coalition party, headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has put in place laws on affirmative action to help promote women into public life.
In education there are different entrance levels for university admission for men and women to promote greater equality. Even so, the 30-percent quota for women at the university level has not been met. Ethiopia, whose constituency is in Addis Ababa, said that traditional barriers like access to education could hamper attempts at greater equality through parliament.
Although a massive drive by the government has seen a huge increase in female enrolment rates, only one in five girls finishes primary school without repeating her education and just a third of women can read or write. She said that the government was still aiming to ensure that half of candidates would eventually be women, although no date on that target has been set.
The next Ethiopian general elections are only the third democratic ballot in the country's history. All have been convincingly won by the EPRDF. Ethiopia's legislative branch consists of a bicameral parliament: the 110-seat House of the Federation and the 548-seat lower chamber of the House of People’s Representatives.