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Ethiopia’s First Female Supreme Court Chief Hopes to Rebuild Trust

Meaza Ashenafi is the first woman to lead Ethiopia’s Supreme Court.
Meaza Ashenafi is the first woman to lead Ethiopia’s Supreme Court.

For the first time, Ethiopia’s Supreme Court will be led by a woman.

Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate, accepted the offer Thursday, after deliberating for about a week. “I know the weight that comes with this responsibility,” she told VOA’s Amharic service after assuming her new role. “When an opportunity like this comes, it comes once in a lifetime. I decided to accept it.”

Meaza previously sat on the high court from 1989 to 1992. Later, the Ethiopian Constitution Commission appointed her as a legal adviser. She also served on the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

In her extensive career as a lawyer, judge, legal advocate and business leader, Meaza has focused on women’s rights and economic empowerment. She founded Ethiopia’s first women’s bank, “Enat Bank,” or “Mother Bank” in Amharic. The bank specializes in loans to underserved communities, including women and young people.

Meaza also founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, a group focusing on issues of sexual and intimate partner violence.

Improving the legal system

Meaza hopes to restore respect for the legal system in the eyes of Ethiopians who sometimes view the courts as biased or slow to respond.

“The people of Ethiopia love the law, and they respect the law. However, because justice is hard to come by for the people, they have lost trust in the law,” she told VOA.

Meaza wants Ethiopians to view the court as able to hold all to account, including those in power.

“It is not enough for the law to remain on paper,” she said. “What makes the law purposeful is the court in the end. If one person is killed by a government body or is killed by another person, where he can find the solution is from the court. Therefore, if the court cannot afford the person speedy justice that is free of political pressure and corruption, the law loses meaning.”

FILE - Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aug. 25, 2018.
FILE - Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aug. 25, 2018.

‘Common vision’

Meaza believes she has an ally in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s young, reform-minded leader. In a speech Wednesday to thousands of Ethiopians in Frankfurt, Germany, Abiy highlighted the role the court will play in strengthening Ethiopia’s civil society.

“Justice and democracy aren’t granted simply because we want them,” Abiy said. “They are not trees planted through peaceful protests and social media in the morning and grown overnight. They need institutions to grow and bear fruit.”

Abiy told Meaza he wants the court be independent of political influence, she said.

“The prime minister confirmed that this was one of his biggest visions,” she said. “Therefore, this is the common vision we share to build the court. If there is an agreement on this level, what comes next is, even though it is not an easy task, I believe can be done.”

Meaza has been a crusader against harmful practices that victimize women. One of her most famous cases involved a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped by a man trying to force her into child marriage, a traditional practice in some parts of Ethiopia. The girl shot and killed her abductor, but was cleared of charges due to Meaza’s work. The incident was dramatized in an award-winning film, “Difret.”

She hopes her understanding of Ethiopia’s culture and people will be an asset in her new position as she seeks solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

“One of the big advantages I have is that, even when working with international organizations, I never left my country. I didn’t leave Ethiopia,” she said. “I live within the society, and I meet with legal experts, and I have a general knowledge. But I will have to learn the key aspects of this position in detail and understand how we can find solutions.”

This story originated in VOA’s Amharic service. Reporter Tsion Girma interviewed Meaza Ashenafi in Amharic, and Salem Solomon translated the interview, along with parts of the prime minister’s speech in Frankfurt, and wrote the story.