There have been few studies concerning women in Ethiopia, but many observers have commented on the physical hardship that Ethiopian women experience throughout their lives. Such hardship involves carrying loads over long distances, grinding corn manually, working in the homestead, raising children, and cooking. Ethiopian women traditionally have suffered sociocultural and economic discrimination and have had fewer opportunities than men for personal growth, education, and employment. Even the civil code affirmed the woman’s inferior position, and such rights as ownership of property and inheritance varied from one ethnic group to another.
As in other traditional societies, a woman’s worth is measured in terms of her role as a mother and wife. Over 85 percent of Ethiopian women reside in rural areas, where peasant families are engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture. Rural women are integrated into the rural economy, which is basically labor intensive and which exacts a heavy physical toll on all, including children. The revolution had little impact on the lives of rural women. Land reform did not change their subordinate status, which was based on deep-rooted traditional values and beliefs. An improvement in economic conditions would improve the standard of living of women, but real change would require a transformation of the attitudes of governments and men regarding women.
There have been some changes for women in urban areas, where education, health care, and employment outside the home have become more available. Although a few women with higher education have found professional employment, most hold low-paying jobs. About 40 percent of employed women in urban areas worked in the service sector, mainly in hotels, restaurants, and bars, according to a 1976 government survey. Employment in production and related areas (such as textiles and food processing) accounted for 25 percent of the female work force, followed by sales, which accounted for about 11 percent. The survey also showed that women factory workers in Addis Ababa earned about a quarter of the wages men earned for the same type of work. These differences existed despite a 1975 proclamation stipulating equal pay for equal work for men and women.
Following the revolution, women made some gains in economic and political areas. The Revolutionary Ethiopia Women’s Association (REWA), which claimed a membership of over 5 million, took an active part in educating women. It encouraged the creation of women’s organizations in factories, local associations, and in the civil service. Some women participated in local organizations and in peasant associations and kebeles. However, the role of women was limited at the national level. In 1984, for example, the government selected only one woman as a full member of the Central Committee of the WPE. Of the 2,000 delegates who attended the WPE’s inaugural congress in 1984, only 6 percent were women.
On a more positive note, the Mengistu regime could claim success in increasing literacy among women. The enrollment of women in primary and secondary schools increased from about 32 percent in 1974/75 to 39 percent in 1985/86, although the rate of enrollment of urban women far exceeded the rate for rural women.