Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia (Official photo)

Women and Adversity:
21st Century Women
   Sahle-Work Zewde
President of Ethiopia

I’ve never been to Ethiopia, a landlocked country in the eastern part of Africa, which became a democratic republic in 1995. I know its capital is Addis Ababa, but I don’t know much else about it, so I was pleased to read that a woman was elected president for the first time in 2018. Sahle-Work Zewde (Sa ⸍lay-Work Zoo⸍day), was appointed then approved by its Parliament when Mulatu Teshome resigned the position unexpectedly. Although the position is ceremonial, it’s a step forward for this male dominated nation and its 121 million people.

Sahle-Work (This is the proper way to refer to her) joins the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has filled his cabinet with women. Gender equality in Ethiopia is one of Sahle-Work’s goals. In a speech to Parliament when she was approved as president, she said, “If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.” Then at her swearing-in ceremony, she said, “I know today I have said a lot about female empowerment but expect me to be even more vocal in the coming years about female rights and equality.” She is expected to serve two six-year terms. She is another rare woman who has been in the political and diplomatic arena throughout her career. She says her father told her that there is nothing a woman can’t do.

Sahle-Work Zewde:

  • Born February 21, 1950 in Addis Ababa
  • Oldest of four daughters
  • Her Twitter account mentions brothers, but I think she uses “brother” as a generic term
  • Attended elementary and secondary school at the French school Lycée Guébré-Mariam in Addis Ababa
  • Graduated from University of Montpellier, France with a degree in natural sciences
  • She is fluent in Amharic, which is an Ethiopian language, French and English

 Career: (Specific dates and information are difficult to find.)

  • Began in the Ministry of Education
  • 1988, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • 1989-1993, Ethiopian ambassador to Senegal, but also had accreditation to Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Guinea and Mali
  • 1993-2002, Ambassador to Djibouti and permanent representative to Intergovernmental Authority on Development
  • Ambassador to France, Tunisia and Morocco (no dates available)
  • Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the African Union

 United Nations roles from 2009:

  • United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
  • Until 2011, Special Representative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
  • Head of United Nations Integrated Peace-building Office in the Central African Republic
  • 2011, appointed Director-General of United Nations Office at Nairobi
  • 2018, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Sahle-Work Special Representative to the African Union and Head of United Nations Office to the African Union. This position is at the level of Under- Secretary General of the United Nations, the first woman to hold both of these offices.

Actions since President:

  • March 2020, pardoned more than 4,000 prisoners to curb COVID-19
  • April 2020, pardoned 1,500 more. No reason given
  • December 2020, commuted death sentences of Derg regime, which collapsed in 1991

Personal life:

  • Married
  • Two children

Learn more about her:

Sahle-Work Zewde (@SahleWorkZewde) / Twitter

Article By: Jo Ann Mathews

I published three ebooks in 2020: Women and Adversity, Honoring 23 Black Women; Women and Adversity, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers; and Women and Adversity, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. These books are meant to be study guides for all students from grade school through college to help in choosing topics for assignments and to learn more about these noteworthy women. Go to, and to learn more.

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