Meaza Ashenafi, Women Activist, Lawyer, Chairperson of ENAT Bank, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Words of Wisdom: “If they have a voice, and have public trust, I believe they have to continue talking, continue to fight, continue to contribute to make the world a better place.” – Meaza Ashenafi

Interview with Meaza Ashenafi, Women Activist, Lawyer, Chairperson of ENAT Bank, Addis Aababa, Ethiopia

Meaza Ashenafi, Women Activist, Lawyer, Chairperson of ENAT Bank, Addis Aababa, Ethiopia

Meaza Ashenafi is one of the more prominent women leaders in Ethiopia.

Lawyer by profession established and managed the most successful national women’s rights advocacy organization the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. She was very instrumental in working on reforms, amendments and additions on existing laws affecting women’s rights.

The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association helps African women with legal aid when their rights have been violated. They also provide education for women who could not finish school. Meaza contributed to the inclusion of women and children’s rights provisions in the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia.

Winner of the 2003 Africa Prize for Leadership; The Hunger Project; October 11, 2003.

Winner of the “International Women of Courage for Ethiopia” Award; Government of U.S, March 2008

Amongst many other accomplishments, Meaza was identified as one of the five prominent women’s rights activists worldwide.

Meaza Ashenafi is a co- initiator a Chairperson for the newly formed Enat Bank (Mother Bank) – the thirteenth bank in Ethiopia and the only one focusing on providing financing to small and mid size women enterprises. The bank works to develop the income-generating capacity of women in Ethiopia.

Meaza Ashenafi~ YouTube promo video (approx. 3 min.):


Meaza Ashenafi, Women Activist, Lawyer, Chairperson of ENAT Bank, Addis Aababa, Ethiopia

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

What was the catalyst for perusing a career in women’s rights?

It was a basically an accident.

  • As a training lawyer, an opportunity presented itself by way of adopting the Ethiopian constitution in 1995
  • Following I helped establish the Women Law Association.

What made you want to become a lawyer?

  • I used to like protecting people: siblings, domestic works. There was something in me that drove me to protect others.
  • My training as a lawyer then assisted with what came natural to me.

What continues to motivate you to fight for women’s rights?

  • I am luck that I have able to mobilize people, define agendas and define issues. I have been able to win the trust of people especially women.
  • I feel responsible to speak on behalf of women for women who have had injustices done to them such as rape.

What would need to happen for you to feel you achieved your objective?

  1. If more women are empowered economically
  2. If more women were involved in decision making in the public & private sector
  3. More women are involved in the private sector
  4. I want more women to speak up against abuse, the violation of their rights
  5. I want more women’s agency to speak up

What do you see as the biggest injustice done to women in Ethiopia?

  1. Violence against women is a huge problem. There has been lots of public awareness but still a huge problem. This is my biggest priority.
  2. We need women’s agencies to get participating in decision-making. Right now they are very weak. We need more recognition as women as well as more leadership distribution of power.

What needs to change for violence against women to be addressed?

We need to work on three levels:

  1. The enactment of comprehensive laws against women, although we have them, we don’t have comprehensive laws that address every aspect of violence against women.
    For example: Women in marriage. There are no laws that specially protect married women.
  2. Law enforcement
    • We need train our police. We need to train judicially; they need to act and response to women victims.

    3. Change of social norms, traditional norms that accommodate violence against women.

What could a woman do if they are in a violent situation? Does economics have any impact?

  • In certain cases economics does play a role. If women are empowered economically they theoretically more free to leave a relationship. But it is not always the case.
  •  My advise to women is to never allow violence, or they giving indication that it is acceptable. They should never believe it will improve. If they accept it, eventually there will be severe consequences i.e. They may get killed, there are other types of severe situations that can occur. They need to take action as soon as they can.
  • There is a center for women victims, Center for Abused Women. We don’t have any shelters for these women, which is one of our problems.

What are some of the biggest challenges to empower women economically?

  1. Education
  2. Access to healthcare, especially related to maternal care.
  3. Women’s agencies are critical
  • Although disadvantaged as this is a traditional society where there is not enough participation of women, or their voices are not heard. Women are barred to domestic roles.

4. There should be intervention to push women to go to school to be enterprising.

What can women do themselves to change their circumstances and to empower themselves?

  • Organizations are key. When you are part of society where you have skills and tools to assist and outreach to other women.
  • Sources like Wisdom exchange TV are key. Leadership training is very much needed to empower women.
  • Women can be leaders in all positions, in communities – they are key agents. We need to empower these women so they become change agents.

What can women do in their communities to demonstrate their leadership ability?

When they see something that is not right, don’t feel sorry for someone, do something about it.

Where in Africa have you seen the most progression for women empowerment?

  1. When it comes to Africa I think in terms of participation and agencies, and in that case I feel Rwanda has achieved this.
  • Rwanda has 58% of women in participation in parliament
  • We know the history and they are overcoming that challenge
  • They are giving more opportunity to women
  • Women are influencing decision, implementing social services.
  • Making education accessible for girls.
  1. South Africa is another example
    • Because they fought apartheid, they know how to become organized. They know how to influence process
    • The ANC has been supportive to bring women to decision-making positions at the parliamentary level and in the cabinet.
  • We have eight or nine African countries where there is women participation. The critical mass of women participation is over 30%. Ethiopia is one of those countries.

What role would you like to see women posses in society?

They should be able play every role as men have been able to play

  • Women account for 50% of society so they should be represented in Government and business structures.

Do you see any consequences of women playing an equal role?

  • No, I don’t see consequences
  • There are some issues, as more girls are going enrolling at higher education level and boys enrollment is coming down this will be a cause for concern. In Ethiopia we still have to go a long way before we have those sort of concerns.

I read that you felt women did not have enough organizational skills to put pressure on the government, do you still feel that case?

  • We are organized at different levels.
  • We have organization of women and NGO’s both are important to trickle down the message to mobilize at the grass-root levels.
  • We also need professional associations and NGOs to do the research, the analytic work to make change.
  • We need coordination to get the analytic work done.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you personally in pursuing women’s rights?

  • You don’t see transformation quickly.
  • The issues I have been fighting for the last 15 years are still there. They manifest in a different form, but they persist.
  • Sometimes working for social transformation is not easy. It takes time. You need different input to make it work and all of that takes patience.

 How do you deal with the slow transformation?

When you are Activist you know it will take time. You learn from experience of others. You build on what has been done before you.  You just continue to fight. There is no other way.

You need to control your own expectations.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for women to move forward?

  1. I think women’s education is key.
  2. Lack training
  3. Property ownership
  4. Legal rights in marriage, and if divorced.

Education has improved especially at the primary and secondary levels. When I was in university I was the only one in my class, but now it is fifty – fifty.

Why did get involved in Enat bank, and what was the biggest challenge?

It is what a casual conversation but the more we talked about the concept of Enat bank the more it made sense. Our banks are operated in a traditional fashion, you need collateral to take a loan, i.e. land, a building.

Two reasons women had a challenge:

  1. Most women do not have property. If they do have property, the husband as collateral may be using it.
  2. Traditional attitudes. If go for a loan women are asked where is the husband? Challenging if they can do it themselves.

Implementing the vision was a huge challenge. Several of us are involved, but none of use have experience in equity marketing or the banking sector.  Most of the co-initiators are women entrepreneurs, although some are from other sectors.

  • We were stuck for one year because we could not find the right staff.
  • Selling shares was also challenging.
  • We never gave up and July 9 2011 the bank launched.
  • It is a bank for all – 64% of equity is owned by women.
  • We want to focus on small to medium enterprise as much as possible.
  • We want to be innovative with our loan structures.

As a women entrepreneur how do I get financing?

  1. It depends on what type of business you want to start. What will be your niche?
  2. Try to come up with an original project
  3. Take into account that your project has a social edge to it, i.e. employ more women and environmentally friendly
    • There is support in terms of capacity building, technical assistance and access to finance

What is the most significant impact you have made on your career?

Being part of the Ethiopian Women’s Law Association, as it has played a key part in legal reform in this country. We have managed to research and mobilize public opinion and present the case to government in terms of discriminatory laws stating what needs to be done.

We were part of the initiative that has lead to the reform of Ethiopian family law, reform of criminal law, and reform national law and affected women rights.

Also the legal aid program is important contribution for women. It has been in place for 20 years and it provide access to legal aid for women all over the country.

Also the effort to make women’s rights on the national agenda. To ‘name’ “violence against women.” When we started there was no such name in the dictionary.

I am also very happy to be part of ENAT bank. This is a unique initiative. There are microfinance initiatives but formal commercial banks they did not exist for women. It will set the example that women should go beyond micro finance, as there is another institution that can assist.

What is the one thing you can attribute your success to?

I am committed to the cause of women. Everything I do is for that focus. I don’t quit once I start. That is my strength.

Do you have any advise for other women to find their purpose?

  1. I think this is ongoing process for all of us, even myself. I think you need to continuously reflect on our internal strengths. We should never settle. We should always reflect on our internal strengths. We need to pick up on those strengths.
  2. Push ourselves. It is ok to be nervous, that makes us think sharp.
  3. What ever I do I need people’s support. You get support when you are nice to people.  For me it is always easier to be nice to people. It is always best to be fair.

Finding your purpose is the same as you Leadership Lessons Learned.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

When in Women Law Association in 2001 we were vocal about a particular case where a woman was a victim of violence. A government official asked us to retract a statement. We felt it was not right to retract it. The association was suspended. We continued to fight and we had to go to court. This was challenging situation in my career.

Staying true to my beliefs can put me in uncomfortable situations.

What was most significant thing that happened to you or for you that helped achieve your career accomplishments?

I was lucky because a very strong mother raised me. She did not have an opportunity to go to school, but she insisted we have education.

I had a very good mentor. I worked for a senior minister. He helped construct my values in life. My focus and prioritize on how to live a complete life.

How important do you feel it is to have a mentor?

I think it is very important. I think we have two windows of opportunity as we form our personalities

  1. From 18 to 25
  2. Early part of career having a mentor can really help.

What does success mean to you?

Contributing to the betterment of the world. To speak on behalf of the vulnerable.

How would you define leadership?

The same. Contributing to the betterment of the world.

What is next for you?

Making ENAT successful.  Really focusing on establishment of the bank, which is not a small task. We need to be profitable and address the social agenda of bank.

Given the chance what would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Write a book.

Reflective Realizations from Meaza Ashenafi

Q. What advice would you give to your 11 yr. old daughter?

I allow her to be herself. When asked: “do you want to be as brave as your mom, she responds. No, I want to be myself.” I like that. That is how she will be an independent woman.

Q. What do you wish you were told at that age?

I wish I could be someone. My teachers use to say:  “this girl is smart, unfortunately she is not a boy.” I wish they said: “She is a girl and she will be someone some day.”

Words of Wisdom by Meaza Ashenafi

Depends on calling, if they are in the public services in any form I believe if they have a voice, and have public trust, I believe they have to continue talking, continue to fight, continue to contribute to make the world a better place.

If they are business, they should never be afraid of failure. They shouldn’t listen to their doubts they should listen to hopes and they will make it.


Center for Abused Women – Addis Ababa Ethiopia

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association



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