Malawi’s First Female President, Joyce Banda, Pens Op-Ed On Empowering Girls In Africa

She rose to power as Malawi’s first female president in April 2012 and continued on until she was defeated at the next election in May 2014. In 2012, she was Vice President to then-President Bingu wa Mutharika. he was considered an authoritarian figure who ended up fostering a dislike for Banda, but after his sudden death due to a heart attack, she managed to fend of attempts by Mutharika’s allies to ascend to her rightful place as next in line to the presidency.

During her time as the head of state, she made some outstanding moves that would benefit the people of Malawi, but ultimately it was not enough to gain her an elected presidency in 2014. She is said to be planning to run again in 2019.

In 2012 she made the decision to sell and lease the presidential private jet and luxury car fleet in order to use the money to go to the Malawi people. When she rose to power, she also lifted the ban on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, becoming one of very few African leaders to support gay rights. She is also a huge supporter of women’s rights, specifically girls education and reducing the rate of maternal mortality.

While she may not currently hold an official state position, Joyce is a distinguished fellow with the Wilson Centers’s Women in Public Service Project, and has initiated several grass root projects about policy change for women and children in Malawi including the Joyce Banda Foundation For Better Education, Young Women Leaders Network and the National Association of business Women.

Joyce started her career as a secretary and a grassroots women’s rights activist. Since entering politics, she has been a member of parliament and Minister for Gender, Children’s Affairs and Community Services, the Foreign Minister, and Vice President. The mother of 5 has been married twice. Her first marriage was an abusive relationship which became the motivation for her to get into politics.

But her strong leadership skills and desire to become a public servant started much earlier than her adult life. Because of her unique upbringing, where her father insisted on treating his daughter the same as his sons (which doesn’t happen in every African family due to patriarchal norms), Joyce is a firm believer that for girls to realize their pull potential in life, gender equality must begin in the home. In a powerful and candid op-ed for Newsweek, the woman once named by Forbes as the “Most Powerful Woman in Africa” says leaders are born, but it requires the intentional nurturing of leadership skills in order to see fruition.

“Young leaders need opportunities to grow and environments that encourage the development of leadership skills. Many girls and women across Africa are not receiving the same opportunities for growth that boys and men are. As a result they are being held back, unable to reach their full potential,” she wrote.

She describes 4 crucial areas of familial and community nurturing which became the catalyst for her political aspirations: the examples of female leadership in her community, her grandmother who was a matriarch and strong role model, the high expectations her family had of her, and her own father who insisted on treating Joyce in the same way as his sons.

It was this past point in particular that seems to have set up Joyce for success, because her father, a member of the police force, deliberately chose to defy gender traditions.

“In many households in Malawi, especially in the village, men and women are separated at home. Boys are often privileged by this separation; sitting with the men gives them access to news, radios and discussions of current events and politics, and often a greater confidence in their self-worth. These are important experiences and exchanges of ideas from which the girl child would be left out. My father decided that he would bring up his children differently, in a few key ways,” writes Joyce.

“First, he made an effort to treat his son and daughters as equals. He would give me and my brother the same books to read, and he always made sure that my sisters and I were given the same opportunities as our brother. He ate with all of us, talked to all of us, engaged us in discussions on education, geography, history, civics and more. We were all engaged by him equally.”

Joyce points to a study surveying female leaders in China and the United Arab Emirates from 2009-2010 which found one of the most common attributes amongst them all was the presence of open-minded fathers who encouraged them to read, would dialog with them about world issues, and treated them as equally as they did males.

The second aspect to her dad’s impact was how he made education a priority in his daughter’s life. In Malawi, high rates of poverty mean many low-income families prioritize boys’ education over girls, and advocate early marriage for girls. Nearly two thirds of women in the country will have given birth by the time they are 20 according to figures from 2014, and due to the lack of comprehensive sex education and healthcare information about childbirth, there are higher chances of medical complications and infant deaths.

Malawi also suffers from a critical lack of female teachers, meaning those girls able to get to school lack the role models to help encourage them to stay. In a country where 62% of the population live on less than $1.25 per day, over 10% of the adult population are HIV positive, and over 1.2 million children are orphans, the focus on ensuring girls do not get left behind by social barriers is critical.

The third and final part of her dad’s influence was that he was not afraid to show off his daughter in public and amongst his peers. He was not ashamed that he was raising a strong and empowered girl, and as a result, some of his friends commented that she would one day go on to do something great for the nation.

“There is an undeniable link between what you are told and exposed to in youth, and what you become. If your family, your school and your community are united in reinforcing your worth, your health and your education, it is far easier for your spirit to flourish. In the traditional communities where men and women are separated, the girl child is made to feel like less than she is and her path to leadership is blocked at a young age. But I also know that communities and behaviors like this can change,” Joyce writes.

Of course, as a pioneering female in the world of global politics, she has experienced her fair share of push-back because of her gender, as she reflected on her 2014 loss with the Guardian in a candid interview.

“You just have to go and look at what’s happening to women presidents now and I don’t know whether that is going to attract women to enter politics because in Malawi my being in politics had a negative effect. Women decided ‘no, I would rather not join politics. If you end up being a leader and you’re treated like that, then I cannot do it’,” she said.

She says it is not something unique to her experience, as women across the world are facing the same barriers as we’ve seen in the most recent US Presidential election and the push-back against Hillary Clinton. With a large number of white women choosing to vote for Donald Trump, a man caught on tape admitting to sexual assault and touching women without their consent, it is clear this is also a factor that pays no mind to socio-economic barriers.

“I want to ask you to look across the world. Start with Australia and look at what Julia Gillard went through: she was called a witch, a bitch, a chicken…Go to Liberia and see what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is going through – even Ebola is her fault. And go to Argentina and Brazil, end up in the US. So I don’t want to talk about myself but it is something a journalist should take a close at look at and form your own opinion. Misogyny not only for Joyce Banda but for women,” she said.

Nevertheless, her career and successes in the public realm have proven it is possible to see more women in high positions of leadership. Whether she runs again in Malawi in 2019, we hope the country will see many more female presidents in its future.

Watch Joyce talk about her passion to see the end of maternal mortality rates in a recent interview with the Woodrow Wilson Center, below:

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