ETHIOPIA: Why Ethiopia Should Ratify the Maputo Protocol?

Thursday, November 25, 2010
Pambazuka News
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol, was adopted by the African Union in the form of a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique and entered into force in 2005. This protocol, like the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which has been ratified by almost all African States, provides a legal framework of reference for ensuring respect for women's human rights: Elimination of discrimination and harmful practices; right to life and to physical integrity; equality in the domain of the family and civil rights; access to justice; right to participate in the political process; protection in armed conflicts; economic rights and social protection; right to health and food security, etc.

The Maputo Protocol has now been ratified by the majority of African states which have thus committed themselves to ‘ensure[ing] that the rights of women are promoted, realised and protected'. However, Ethiopia is one of the few countries that have not yet ratified the protocol. This article discusses reasons why Ethiopia as a member of the African Union needs to consider ratifying the protocol.


Ratification of the Maputo Protocol is consistent with both the foreign and domestic policy of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a good track record of ratifying international and regional human rights treaties. Among those treaties are the International Convention on Civil and Political rights (1993), the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1993), the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (1981) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1998).

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution provides under its article 9(4) that all international treaties ratified by the country are integral parts of the law of the land. It further states that the fundamental rights and freedoms it has recognised shall be interpreted in a manner conforming to the international instruments ratified by Ethiopia. This is an important provision that provides significant opportunity to interpret the rights in light of the human rights instruments which have been extensively interpreted and benefit from a large body of jurisprudence that has been built-up over the years. Although Ethiopia ratified all the above-mentioned and many more important human rights instruments, the Ethiopian government has not yet ratified the Maputo Protocol. Hence ratification of the Maputo Protocol will not only enable Ethiopia to maintain its good track of ratification of international and regional human rights instruments but also contribute to its view as a strong record of support for human rights in general and women's right in particular.


Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country. Ethiopia, the second-most populous nation in Africa, is also one of the founding members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was established on 25 May 1963 and replaced by African Union (AU) in 2002. The headquarters of the AU is based in Addis Ababa. Today Ethiopia has the biggest economy in East Africa (by GDP); its economy is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the country is becoming regional powerhouse in the Horn and east Africa.

This article argues that if Ethiopia ratified the Maputo Protocol it could exercise greater political and moral leadership on human rights in Africa. Ratification of the protocol by Ethiopia will give greater credence and regional support to its principles and will give a needed boost to the enforcement of women's right in Africa. Ratification will commit the Ethiopian government and other African states to better protection and promotion of women's rights. Ethiopia has an important opportunity to reposition itself and play a very important leadership role in human rights. One means towards that goal is to sign and ratify core international and regional human rights treaties. Chief among these regional human right instruments is the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

This protocol that Ethiopia has yet to ratify protects women, the most vulnerable people in African populations. Hence this failure of the Ethiopian government to ratify the protocol is a regional embarrassment and an obstacle to effective foreign policy of the country. Furthermore, in refusing to ratify the Maputo Protocol, the Ethiopian government has relinquished the opportunity to influence further development of women's human rights in Africa.


The Maputo Protocol is consistent with the Ethiopian constitutional principles opposing discrimination based on any grounds including sex. The FDRE constitution has incorporated both specific and general provisions on the rights of women. It provides for the right to equality, which entitles both men and women to benefit from the catalogue of rights it prescribes. Specifically, Article 35 of the constitution is devoted to the rights of women and contains several provisions covering important rights of women. These include equal protection of the law, equality in marital affairs, entitlement to affirmative measures, protection from harmful traditional practices (HTPs), maternity rights in employment, the right to consultation, property rights, employment rights and access to family planning information and services.

Like wise, the Maputo Protocol guarantees a wide range of women's civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights, thus reaffirming the universality, indivisibility and interdependency of all internationally recognised human rights of women. These rights include the right to life, integrity and security of person; protection from harmful traditional practices; prohibition of discrimination and the protection of women in armed conflict. Moreover, the protocol guarantees the right to health and reproductive rights of women; access to justice; equal protection before the law and prohibits exploitation or degradation of women. In sum, the protocol obligates states parties to integrate a gender perspective in their policy decisions, legislation, development plans and to ensure the overall wellbeing of women. The protocol espouse non-discrimination and other core values and principles that most Ethiopians unquestionably support and also largely consistent with core human right principles enshrined in the FDRE constitution.


The last two decades have witnessed significant legislative reform in relation to protection of the rights of women in Ethiopia. In addition to the FDRE constitution with several provisions relevant to women's rights, many other laws have been enacted and the existing ones have been revised in a particularly gender-sensitive manner. Despite the vast progress that has been made in advancing women's rights in those decades, discrimination and violence against women persist in a wide range of forms in Ethiopia.

The Revised Family Law has brought what may be considered a revolutionary change to the parts of the Civil Code dealing with marriage and has abolished most of the discriminatory provisions of the Civil Code in relation to marriage. However, the practice of early marriage is still common in Ethiopia, particularly in rural areas. Even if the minimum age of marriage has now been fixed at 18 years both for boys and girls, forcing girl child into a marriage is a widespread practice throughout the country. In Ethiopia 19 per cent of girls were married by the age of 15 and in some regions such as Amhara the number goes as high as 50 per cent. A study revealed that 13 per cent of marriages end in divorce or separation. Many divorced girls return to their families but, if turned away, they often migrate to a city to seek employment as housemaids or commercial sex workers. The constitution requires the consent of both parties for a dispute to be submitted to the jurisdiction of a Sharia court in the field of marital, personal and family rights; in practice, however, women often accept settlement of their dispute before such court due to social pressure.

Domestic violence and sexual violence against women is the reality. Domestic violence is highly prevalent in Ethiopia and widely socially condoned. A study conducted by the World Health Organization in July 2005 concluded that 88 per cent of rural women and 69 per cent of urban women believed their husbands had the right to beat them.

Abduction of women, although a criminal offence, is still considered as a legitimate way of procuring a bride (especially in southern Ethiopia). Nearly eight per cent of currently married women were abducted and forced into marriage – a custom, prohibited by law but not enforced until recently, that vividly illustrates the enormity of male dominance in Ethiopian tradition. Technically, the girl is abducted by a group of young men, and then raped by the man who wants to marry her – either someone she knows, or a total stranger. Elders from the man's village then ask the family of the girl to agree to the marriage; the family often consents because a girl who has lost her virginity would be socially unacceptable for marriage to another man. Sometimes the abductor keeps the girl in a hiding place until she is pregnant, at which time the family again feels has no option but to agree to the marriage.

Even though the constitution as well as the criminal code condemn harmful traditional practices, female genital mutilation (FGM) remains widely practised in Ethiopia. It is estimated that more than 74 per cent of Ethiopian women of all ages have been subjected to female genital mutilation, a practice centuries old. Health risks associated with FGM are considerable. No criminal prosecutions have ever been brought against perpetrators of FGM.

The health of Ethiopian women is most at risk. Ethiopian women have limited access to prenatal and postnatal care and family planning services. It is estimated that only six per cent of Ethiopian births were attended by skilled birth attendants. According to reports from the Ministry of Health (MoH), the maternal mortality ratios estimated at 673 per 100,000 live births, are of the magnitude observed in Europe about a century ago and they are at least fifty times higher than the present rates in developed countries signifying that mother's are still at risk for high maternal morbidity and mortality. An early pregnancy has serious consequences on the health of young girls, including obstetrical fistulae. These high rates can also be explained by the lack of access to information on women's reproductive health and rights, FGM, early marriage and non-medically supervised abortions. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS has also remained high among women. Although Ethiopia implemented affirmative action policy to reduce gender imbalances in governance and politics, hence bringing the proportion of women in parliament to 31 per cent, there remains a problem. Politically, women in Ethiopia are still under-represented.

Generally, socio-cultural factors are not only discriminatory but also major obstacles to women's advancement. Custom, culture, tradition and religion have continued to relegate women in Africa, and evidently in Ethiopia, to an inferior position of virtually no status thereby limiting their right to equality and freedom from discrimination. So in the light of all the above situation of most women in Ethiopia leaves a lot to be desired. Ratification of the Maputo Protocol will implicates a clear demonstration that the government of Ethiopia is still committed to the realisation of women's rights. The Maputo Protocol enshrines civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the rights to development and peace and reproductive and sexual rights. It provides a legal framework for addressing gender inequality and the underlying aspects that perpetuate women's subordination.

To conclude, the Ethiopian government should now consider ratifying the Maputo Protocol and to be used as a legal framework for the advancement of women's rights. The brief analysis of legal, political and social factors above suggests that a window of opportunity has arrived for the Ethiopian government to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and women's rights by ratifying the Maputo Protocol. The Maputo Protocol is the strongest and most relevant instrument to advocate for women's human rights in Ethiopia and tool that could be used by Ethiopian women to effectively bring about change in their conditions. The protocol could also be used as an invaluable tool in opposing the effects of discrimination and violence that continue to be inflicted against Ethiopian women.
As mentioned above the principles espoused in the protocol for the rights of women are consistent with those existing Ethiopian laws and with the country's foreign and domestic policy objectives. The protocol would nonetheless help efforts to enhance Ethiopian laws with respect to discrimination and violence against women, access to legal protections, and other human rights of women. The hesitance of Ethiopian government to ratify the Maputo Protocol serves as a disincentive for governments to end the persistent discrimination and violence against the Ethiopian women.