Meet Meaza Ashenafi, the First Woman Chief Justice in Ethiopia

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Meaza Ashenafi Mengistu made history as Ethiopia’s first woman Chief Justice, leading the Federal Supreme Court. Yet, this significant achievement is just one chapter in her story of advocacy and pioneering efforts for women’s rights in Ethiopia.

Born on July 25, 1964, in Assosa, a remote town now the capital of Benishangul-Gumuz regional state, Meaza’s journey began in a large family of nine children. Her father, Ashenafi Mengistu, was the town’s mayor, while her mother, Askalech Tegegne, managed their bustling household. Meaza credits her mother, who lacked formal education, with instilling in her values of honesty, fairness, and a love for learning.

Meaza’s academic prowess led her to Addis Ababa University (AAU) at just 17, where she entered law school as the sole woman in her class. She graduated in 1986 and briefly worked at the Ministry of Trade before joining the judiciary. As a judge at the Federal High Court Criminal Bench, she observed firsthand the legal system’s inherent biases against women.

In 1993, Meaza’s expertise was sought by the Human Rights Committee of the Ethiopian Constitution Drafting Commission. Here, she played a crucial role in formulating protections for women’s and children’s rights in the new constitution. Motivated to ensure these laws were enforced, she co-founded the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) in 1995. As Executive Director for eight years, she led efforts to amend discriminatory laws and provided legal assistance to vulnerable women.

EWLA’s impact was profound. The organization secured significant legal reforms, including the criminalization of domestic violence and female genital mutilation. It also provided free legal aid to over 100,000 women, empowering them to fight for their rights. One landmark case involved a 14-year-old girl who killed her abductor in self-defense. This case was later depicted in the award-winning film “Difret,” highlighting the brutal realities faced by Ethiopian women.

Meaza’s advocacy extended beyond EWLA. She served as acting director of Inter-Africa Group, facilitated political debates, and advised the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) on gender and social policy. In 2011, she helped establish Enat Bank, Ethiopia’s first women-focused bank, promoting financial inclusion and empowerment for women.

Her tireless efforts have earned her numerous accolades, including the Hunger Project African Leadership Prize in 2003. Meaza’s success is bolstered by the support of her husband, Dr. Araya Asfaw, and their two daughters. She often emphasizes the importance of teamwork and collaboration in achieving her goals.

In November 2018, Meaza’s career reached a new height when she was appointed President of the Federal Supreme Court by the Ethiopian Parliament, following her nomination by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. As Chief Justice, her priorities include restoring public trust in the judiciary and enhancing gender parity. In 2019, she oversaw the appointment of six additional women judges to the Federal Supreme Court, a testament to her commitment to gender equality.

Meaza Ashenafi’s legacy as a pioneer is not solely defined by her historic appointment as Chief Justice. Her relentless dedication to justice, equality, and women’s empowerment has transformed Ethiopia’s legal landscape. As she once declared, “If they want business as usual, I’m not the right person for this job.” Meaza’s fearless pursuit of justice and reform continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations.

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