Lilongwe — Joyce Banda, has become Southern Africa’s first, and Africa’s second female president following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika on April 5, 2012.
A vote of confidence saw the former Deputy President taking over the reigns in Malawi over Easter. The first female African president is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia.
It is not surprising that the passionate gender activist who became the country’s second citizen in 2009, after serving in different cabinet portfolios, is now President. Her appointment brings Malawi one step closer to the ideal of gender parity in decision-making in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development. The Protocol has 28 targets to be achieved by 2015, also the target date for the Millennium Development Goals.
Before her active political career, the President founded the Joyce Banda Foundation, as well as the National Association of Business Women (NABW) and Young Women Leaders Network.
International awards won by Banda include the 1997 Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger together with President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique from a New York-based non-governmental organization, the Hunger Project. Nine years later in 2006, she received an International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women for her dedication to the rights of the women of Malawi by the United States for United Nations Population Fund. Forbes Magazine listed her in 2011 as the third most powerful woman in Africa.
Banda’s political career has not been an easy one. She found herself at loggerheads with the late Mutharika who booted her out of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and declared that no woman will ever rule Malawi.
Malawians expected Banda to go flat out on a revenge mission. In her inaugural speech at the swearing in ceremony, she said that there is no room for revenge.
Many Malawians believe that she will use her position to uplift the lives of women who are still marginalised. Section 13 of the Malawi Constitution requires that the state "achieve and promote gender equality by, among other things, passing policies and legislation to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of life of Malawian society on the basis of equality with men."
Based on the Malawi Demographic and Household Survey of 2000, 30 out of 100 married women had unmet need for family planning services. Just last year Parliament shifted marriage age for girls from 15 to 16 years of age. After public outcry, the former president never signed the bill into law and it still remains at 15.
Young girls get married to older men, creating a huge power imbalance between husband and wife. This is also recipe for health hazards such as early pregnancies.
President Banda has to make progressive decisions on reproductive health. As things stand, it is apparent that early marriages are an obstacle to the progressive development of women and full attainment of gender equality.
Banda became a member of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, which is a group of sixteen sitting and former heads of state, high-level policymakers and other leaders committed to advancing reproductive health for lasting development and prosperity.
These leaders mobilise the political will and financial resources necessary to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015 which is a key target of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Malawian women, who constitute 52% of the population, do not have access to land and the Constitution does not guarantee this productive resource. Although Malawi’s economy is agri-dependent and women comprise the largest labour force, they have no say on matters of land ownership. She has to ensure that she spearheads the repealing of laws around access to women to reduce poverty in Malawi.
Banda’s unexpected rise to power gives new hope to African women. She should spread her influence outside Malawi where women are also trying to take influential positions, regionally as well as internationally. For instance, she can put her weight behind Nigeria’s Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who is vying to become the World Bank’s next President.
With Malawi hosting the African Union summit in July this year, she can influence the election of former South Africa Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as new African Union chief after the first polls ended in deadlock.
Already some men are predicting that they will be sidelined. I say: "congratulations President Banda! Malawian women are looking up to you to ensure that current gender disparities are addressed through development."