Malawi has a new President, the first woman in the country, and the first in Southern Africa. Her presidency comes in the wake of the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharikwa on the 6 April from cardiac arrest. What was supposed to be sorrowful moment has also become a hopeful moment, as the new president symbolizes a dawn of change and freedom for the impoverished nation.
Joyce Banda was the Vice President of Malawi, promoted to this post in May 2009. She was previously minister of foreign affairs as well as minister for gender, children’s affairs and community services. She was expelled from the party in 2010 in a dispute with the president over his efforts to groom his brother as his eventual successor. She formed her own opposition party, the People’s Party, but remained Vice President. According to the Malawi Constitution, should a sitting president die, the Vice President takes over until the next elections; effectively, Joyce Banda will be the Malawian head of State until 2014.
President Joyce Banda has been a grassroots fighter for women’s empowerment for many years; she often tells her own story of an abusive marriage when she lived in Nairobi Kenya, and how she was trapped in it because she was not economically empowered. President Banda, now 62 walked out of this marriage at age 31 with her three children drawing strength and inspiration from the 1970s’ Kenyan women’s movement, and promised herself she would never find herself in that situation again. She studied briefly in the United States and eventually founded several organizations, including the Joyce Banda Foundation, which educates girls and provides care for orphans, many of them HIV-positive. She also created the Young Women Leaders Network and the Hunger Project. She received the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger in 1997 for founding the National Association of Business Women of Malawi, aimed at making women economically self-reliant. “We have no choice in Africa but to invest in women,” she said in a speech last December at the Clinton School of Public Service, at the University of Arkansas. In 2011, Joyce Banda was listed as Africa’s third most powerful woman.
In January 2012, she marched with Malawian women who demanded an end to attacks on those who were stripped naked on the streets for wearing pants, leggings, and miniskirts, instead of dresses. Joyce Banda is a champion for women’s rights; this is essentially her claim to fame and the women’s movement across the continent and the world have sent their congratulatory messages for being the second African woman to become President.
One of her first acts as President was to fire the police chief who has been accused of mishandling anti-government riots last year in which 19 people were killed, as well as the mysterious death of a university political activist who published a news sheet highly critical of the government. It is my hope that, during her presidency, she continues to uphold human rights, especially women’s rights, and make Malawi a Southern African beacon for respecting, protecting, and promoting women’s rights. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is now no longer an old boys club; it has been penetrated by a women’s activist, and it will be interesting to see what sort of an impact she has on women’s rights in her own country and in Southern Africa as a whole.
Congratulations President Banda!