A new hope to Ethiopian Women’s Rights CSO’s?

DuniaMekonnenTegegnAuthor: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn
Human rights lawyer, Ethiopia

A number of scholars have discussed the implication of the Civil Society Proclamation (CSP) in terms of realizing human rights recognized under the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). However, the quality of attention given to the direct implication of this proclamation on women’s rights organizations and on measures that are focused on gender equality is not significant.

This article argues that the CSP of Ethiopia is and has been unconstitutional and violates the rights of women to freedom of association that is recognized under the aspirations and provisions of the FDRE Constitution. It goes beyond the rhetoric and provides a practical overview of the myriad of challenges the women’s rights movement faced in its effort to tackle down gender inequality in the country.

Section one of this article introduces an overview of the CSP. Section two presents Ethiopian women’s right to freedom of association against the provisions of the CSP, while section three discusses some practical illustrations and challenges women rights advocates and women rights organizations have faced in terms of ensuring gender equality beginning from the enactment of the proclamation in 2009. The final section discusses current developments in this regard and suggests actions on the way forward.

The Ethiopian Civil Society Proclamation (CSP) of 2009

The Ethiopian Government adopted the Proclamation to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies (CSP) in 2009.  The CSP was enacted to regulate and control the activities of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). The government of Ethiopia raised three major justifications that gave rise to this proclamation. The first and main argument is that human rights work is political in nature. Hence, it should be left only for Ethiopians with no support from foreign sources including support in terms of finance. Other grounds often raised also relate to human rights organizations that were involved in the 2005 election in Ethiopia through domestic observation as well as voter and civic education. In addition to this, the government also argued there is an inappropriate use of resources by CSOs that called for a more rigid law to register, manage, and monitor these organizations through oversight and monitoring.

The CSP define Ethiopian charities and societies as:

Organizations formed under the laws of Ethiopia, all of whose members are Ethiopians, generate income from Ethiopians and wholly controlled by Ethiopians. Ethiopian charities and societies are deemed Ethiopian if not more than 10% of their funds are derived from foreign sources.

The CSP under its article 14 also provides that “activities such as the advancement of human and democratic rights, the promotion of equality of nations and nationalities and peoples and that of gender and religion…” can only be conducted by Ethiopian charities and societies.

Pre CSP environment in Ethiopia

Before the actual enactment of the CSP, the women rights movement in the country could be described as being active. The women rights movement lobbied for a change of discriminatory laws. It also contributed to the enforcement of severe penalties on Gender-Based Violence. The women’s right movement enhanced access to justice through the provision of free legal aid and related assistance services for needy women and victims of violence. Women’s rights organizations also provided a representation of cases at court and further supported reconciliations among litigating parties.

Post CSP environment in Ethiopia

The CSP was clear. Its purport is the classification of CSOs based on the source of funding. If the percentage of funds mobilized from outside Ethiopia exceeds 10 % of the annual budget, the CSO cannot operate in Ethiopia and cannot work on areas that are explicitly reserved for Ethiopian CSOs, including those that relate to advancing women rights.

The law discussed two exceptions for this: bilateral agreements and mass-based organizations. Women associations in the context of the CSP are mentioned as part of mass-based organizations. The CSP does not define what mass-based organizations are but highlighted that it includes Professional Associations, Women’s Associations, Youth Associations and the like. When it comes to rights-based women organizations, the definition lacks clarity.

Ethiopian women’s right to freedom of association vis-a-vis the provisions of the CSP

The right to freedom of association is recognized under Article 31 of the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. It provides: “Every person has the right to freedom of association for any cause or purpose. Organizations formed, in violation of appropriate laws, or illegally subvert the constitutional order, or which promote such activities is prohibited.”

In addition to this blunt recognition of the right, the preamble of the constitution echoes freedom of association and reflects the important role women play in terms of fulfilling the objectives of the constitution with due respect to individual and peoples’ right and freedom.  Similarly, the constitution has recognized a spectrum of rights for Ethiopian women under Article 35. The constitution provides that “states shall enforce the right of women to eliminate the influence of laws that oppress them.” The constitution has always been the guardian for the right of a woman to association. When the constitution was initially drafted, Women groups were represented in the drafting committee.

The constitution affirms that the right to freedom of association is exercised for whatever reason women believe to be important: That is, “for any cause or purpose.” The explicit categorization of CSOs into those that can promote woman human rights and those who cannot limits the right of Ethiopian women to associate for any purpose or cause and defeats the original purpose of the constitution.

Ethiopia is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article10 of which guarantees the right to freedom of association. The FDRE constitution states that treaties/conventions that are ratified by Ethiopia are part of the laws of the land. Hence, the CSP violates Ethiopia’s human rights obligation under the ICCPR.

There are arguments that the Ethiopian constitution included claw back clauses as a limitation to the exercise of constitutional rights, including freedom of association. However, the CSP is not limited in its scope. It also applies to women’s rights organizations that function in light of the constitution and which are not involved in “illegally subverting constitutional order.” as defined under the constitution. Hence, the CSP is and has for long been unconstitutional.

Practical difficulties: Women’s right to freedom of association

As discussed above, the FDRE constitution broadly recognizes women rights under Article 35 and women’s right to freedom of association under Article 31. The most restrictive feature of the CSP is its funding precincts. This actually made the application of the right to freedom of association practically impossible. Under the CSP, Ethiopian charities and societies can work on the promotion and advancement of women’s rights if they are able to mobilize a minimum of 90% of their annual budget internally.

This aspect of the law became a big challenge for the sustainability of programs run by many of the women’s rights organizations such as legal aid service. They faced huge obstacles in raising funds from local sources to run legal aid centers. Most of these local CSOs rely on volunteer legal counselors without even covering transportation cost. This volunteer arrangement has affected the service negatively. In addition to this, the budget for the victims’ fund, which used to facilitate women’s access to justice, has been minimal. Court cases, which need representation, could not be handled, as there is no adequate funding for such services. Follow up on cases at courts, police stations, and public prosecution offices cannot be done as much as the demand, as there is a lack of human capital and due to the high cost of fuel.

In the absence of any practical experience in the area of funding locally and a volunteering culture, it has been a difficult job for women’s rights advocates to survive, let alone continue their day to day activities. Some women’s rights organizations have closed relevant departments such as public relations to minimize cost. These departments, prior to the CSP were involved in outreach programs and promotional activities that contributed to the demand for legal aid services by women who are victims of domestic violence.

Most human rights organizations, including women affiliated ones, have so far left these unfavorable areas of the law and shifted their programs and projects. In 2014, only 174 new CSOs were registered, 158 CSOs were closed, including 133 involuntarily for failing project implementation due to lack of funds.

New Hope for Women’s Rights CSOs?

In July of 2018 the Federal Attorney General’s office established a 13-member justice reform advisory council to address an array of serious issues, including reviewing suppressive laws such as the Civil Society Proclamation.[1] This was followed by consultations among the members of the justice reform advisory. This reform advisory committee includes women like Meaza Ashenafi, founder and executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) who have expressed their concern over the enactment of the CSP.

Reportedly, the working group is conducting consultations and plans to propose amendments to the HPR (House of People’s Representatives). Proponents of the reform particularly as far as the CSP is concerned are taking two positions. The primary one is the complete repeal of the CSP and replaces the same by ordinary association laws. Other suggestions include review of the CSP particularly articles that have adversely affected the operation of CSOs including but not limited to the 90/10 funding restriction.[2] Though these discussions are still at their initial stage, I strongly suggest that the reform committee assesses best practices to propose a model that could maximize the number and also the role of Women’s rights CSOs in the country.


[1] https://www.demdigest.org/ethiopias-reform-moving-from-symbolic-gestures-to-specific-steps/


[2] https://addisfortune.net/articles/council-arise-to-reform-anti-terrorism-media-law/


About the Author:

Dunia Tegegn is a human rights lawyer born and raised in Ethiopia. She has previously worked as a Human Rights Officer at OHCHR EARO and as Program Officer on Ending violence against Women at UN Women country office. Dunia has also worked with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and UNOPS as a seconded staff for UNICEF. She is known for organizing human rights moot court competitions in Ethiopia and has represented her country in the 14th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition that took place in Pretoria. Dunia is a graduate of law from Bahirdar University and also hold a master’s degree in human rights from Addis Ababa University College of Law and Governance and an LLM in National Security from Georgetown University Law Center with a certificate in Women’s law and public Policy. Dunia has co-edited and published a book on “Unleashing African resilience: Pan African renaissance in the new Africa century” and “Security and empowerment: African women in the 21st century.” Dunia also contributes original papers on Women rights and Gender in the Social Science Research Network.

Dunia  currently works at  Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace.

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