Opinion21 May 2019

Ethiopia – the world’s fastest growing economy and land of opportunity? Or another Sub Saharan hotbed for slavery?

As Ethiopia’s future looks brighter its women are still extremely vulnerable to modern slavery, the country needs to develop preventative strategies to map out a way forward.

International Women's Day Celebration in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde at an International Women’s Day Celebration in Addis Ababa. Photo Credit: Anadolou Agency.

Ethiopia is Africa’s fastest growing economy. It’s 2019 GDP is forecast at a rate of almost eight per cent, which would create two million new jobs each year.

With this growth and the ascendance to power of young, reformist leader Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia’s first female President, Sahle-Work Zewde, the country is rightfully enjoying renewed optimism.

Add to this a population of 100 million, of which 70 per cent are under the age of 30,  large infrastructure spending, and a boost from foreign investment in the manufacturing sector, the outlook for Ethiopia is strong.

However, how the country manages this transition is key. The level of vulnerability to modern slavery for Ethiopia’s young population, especially women and girls, continues to be high. The country needs to develop preventative strategies to ensure Ethiopian women do not continue to fall victim to the horrors of modern slavery.

Current vulnerabilities

Walk Free’s 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates six out of every 1,000 people in Ethiopia are victims of modern slavery. With a problem this widespread it is critical to understand the risk factors which make a person vulnerable.

Low wages and high rates of unemployment (20 per cent across the country and 50 per cent for the 20-24 age bracket) are key contributors. Women are then further susceptible due to the prevalence of gender-based violence, cultural discrimination against women and Ethiopia’s lacking social support system.

While the country’s 45 universities deliver 100,000 graduates each year, more than half of these have no prospect of local skilled work. According to the Freedom Fund, due to these conditions an estimated 1,700 Ethiopian women migrate to the Middle East each day, in the hope of securing employment and earning a decent wage. However, this treacherous move puts women at high risk of exploitation, with thousands forced into domestic servitude and sex work.

Additionally, Ethiopia’s manufacturing industry is seeing increasing levels of foreign investment due to the country’s low wages. If the Ethiopian government fails to establish effective legislation which benefits local employment, and responsible foreign investment practices, modern slavery in the sector will continue.

The country is also dealing with 900,000 South Sudanese, Eritrean and Somali refugees and an ongoing ethnic conflict which has led to 3 million internally displaced persons. It has been documented that when conflict and displacement occur, vulnerability to modern slavery also increases .   

A new president’s hope

These very real risks coupled with Ethiopia’s exploding population could further the country’s instability and increase levels of modern slavery.

However, there is real capacity to transform Ethiopia into an engine of growth. Instead of focusing on the magnitude of the problem, we must analyse the risk factors and develop a prevention-based approach.

As part of a recent visit to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, I met with President Zewde who was positive about the country’s outlook and realistic about the challenges ahead.

During our discussion and through my time on the ground with non-government organisations, UN agencies, government officials, local citizens and most importantly survivors of slavery, the following key themes were raised as a way forward for Ethiopia.   

Leadership and empowerment of the youth; 70 million people under the age of 30 years are keen to be educated, work hard and establish a new future for themselves and their country.

Target gender-based violence; a country that does not embrace it’s women and harness their potential will not prosper. Community initiatives and education programs need to be established to enable a cultural shift in Ethiopia’s perception of women.

Safer pathways for migration; for the foreseeable future, employment will be needed outside of the country. Ethiopia needs to work with labour brokers and destination countries to create safe harbours for its people.

Population management; by 2050 Ethiopia’s population is predicted to increase to 190 million people. Family planning is necessary for the optimal health of the mother, child and family as well as the capacity of the country.

Create employment opportunities; the government must enable the private sector to drive skills training, capability development and implement foreign investment policies. This will be mutually beneficial for the Ethiopian government, the local worker and the investor.

First steps

We need to start creating safe environments for girls and programs to tackle gender-based violence. We need to stop talking about employment shortages and start implementing government policies to protect workers. We need to start working with labour brokers to deliver safer migration and we need to start training young women with the skills they need to succeed across the country.

Ultimately, we need to take the first steps to develop preventative strategies. The women of Ethiopia deserve to share in the country’s bright future free from the threat of modern slavery.

Walk Free is one of the founding funders of The Freedom Fund, which has a dedicated program hotspot launched in Ethiopia in July 2015. The program complements existing efforts to reduce the vulnerability of  migrants,  women and girls to trafficking to the Middle East for domestic work. The hotspot strategy focuses on improving livelihoods and enabling better understanding and practice of safe migration.

Walk Free recently launched its Global Slavery Index Africa Region report in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.