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Establishing a Platform: The First Lady of Ethiopia and Her Work to Empower Women and Girls

Article by Natalie Gonnella-Platts February 11, 2015 //   6 minute read

The George W. Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative is a program that supports First Ladies from around the world, with an initial focus in Africa, to effectively use their platforms to promote issues and programs that improve the lives of women and children.  Recent case studies by the Bush Institute look at how the First Ladies Initiative is having an impact, building capacity, and promoting effectiveness for First Ladies’ offices. This blog series spotlights each case study and helps tell the story of a First Lady’s platform and ongoing work.

Today in Ethiopia, Her Excellency Roman Tesfaye, First Lady of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, was joined by George W. Bush Presidential Center President Margaret Spellings to mark the national launch of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon in the country. Cervical and breast cancer are the leading causes of cancer deaths among women in sub-Saharan Africa. Key to the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partnership’s success in addressing women’s on the continent is the engagement of high-level champions.

In the case of Ethiopia, the fourth Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partner country, Mrs. Roman serves as this advocate, as she brings national attention to women’s cancers.  She has worked with the Ethiopian government to identify the prevention and awareness of women’s cancers as priority areas of focus, a key step in helping to pave the way for today’s launch and subsequent programming, which will ultimately save women’s lives.

The event in Addis Ababa is a reminder that First Ladies have a unique opportunity to advance important causes within their countries.  As visible champions, they have the ability to advocate and build support at both the local and global levels, moving the needle forward on critical issues for citizens. While relatively new to the role of First Lady, Mrs. Roman has quickly used her time since her husband’s election as Prime Minister in 2012 to build a robust platform that is making strides to empower women and girls.

In her first months as First Lady, Mrs. Roman’s primary task was formally launching her Office.  She worked with the Office of the Prime Minister to officially establish the Office of the First Lady, the first in the history of Ethiopia. 

With this paramount endeavor achieved in July 2013, the First Lady began to develop her platform. Drawing inspiration from the Bush Institute’s 2013 African First Ladies Summit, Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa, the first international event she attended in her new role, Mrs. Roman took note of the recommendation from Mrs. Laura Bush to begin with the areas you know best, your expertise and interests.

Prior to becoming First Lady, Mrs. Roman gained a strong background in economics and amassed considerable experience as a public servant, working in high-level positions across various sectors within the Ethiopian government, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.  Well educated, she earned two master’s degrees in economics and leadership. 

Leveraging this notable background, in a little over two years, Mrs. Roman’s efforts have had an impact on the lives of women and children in her country, especially in fighting women’s cancers, creating economic opportunities for women, and addressing child malnutrition:

  • Building a foundation in the fight against women’s cancers and the implementation of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon programming in Ethiopia, in January 2014, Mrs. Roman launched the National Cancer Committee composed of governmental institutions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and various development partners.  Its purpose is to support ongoing initiatives and to enhance prevention, early detection, quality treatment services, and palliative care.  She and the Committee have shaped the Government’s vision of regionalizing cancer care around Ethiopia and bringing screening and treatment for cervical pre cancer to hundreds of locations.


  • Ethiopian women often encounter roadblocks while they seek economic opportunities, such as access to loans and other services from financial institutions. Launching her first major initiative as First Lady, Mrs. Roman, in partnership with the Center for Accelerated Women’s Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), government ministries, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) implemented the collaborative project “Connecting 1,500 Women and Girls to the Export Market” in February 2014. The project’s emphasis is to empower women and girls to develop entrepreneurial skills and to connect them to global markets to increase the trade of their goods.


  • Ethiopia suffers from high rates of malnutrition that affect the population’s mortality rates and productivity. It is estimated that Ethiopia loses 16.5 percent of its annual GDP because of the effects of childhood hunger.  To address this issue, the First Lady was appointed the “Nutrition Ambassador of Ethiopia” by the Federal Ministry of Health, and is the champion of a national initiative which seeks to strengthen nutrition education and opportunities for women.


With the aid of her personal experience and capacity-building and partnership support, Mrs. Roman is utilizing her platform to advance the status of women and girls in Ethiopia. Her progress demonstrates the distinctive influence of a First Lady and the importance of women leaders in combatting critical gender issues in Africa and around the world.

For further information on Mrs. Roman’s work to empower women and girls in Ethiopia and to learn more about the work of the Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative, download the Initiative case study, Her Excellency Mrs. Roman Tesfaye and Establishing a Platform.

For further information about Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, including the launch of the partnership with Mrs. Roman in Ethiopia, please visit pinkribbonredribbon.org.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the Program Coordinator for the First Ladies Initiative.