Will Joyce Banda continue her commitment to women now she is President of Malawi?
Last week I had the pleasure of listening to President Joyce Banda of Malawi speak at Chatham House. She is still within her first 100 days in office after the sudden death of the previous President but all the signs point to a President who genuinely cares about the country and its people and has the lives of the Malawian women and children very close to her heart.
She spoke articulately, intelligently and with a touch of humour. She appears to be an inclusive President and certainly she has the feelgood factor. She silenced her critics at the meeting (there were only a couple) by ‘understanding’ their position but explaining very clearly and firmly why she has made certain decisions, she deferred to her Foreign Minister on some issues but also answered the same questions articulately.
The economic ‘bitter pill’
Her policies are yet to be played out and I am not entirely convinced about her strategies for wealth creation and economic recovery. Her idea to promote wealth creation through the private sector needs fleshing out and I am a bit concerned about her plans to develop Malawi’s mining industry. She wants to encourage fair trade but she doesn’t appear to have developed ideas for increasing or improving quality of production.
She is swallowing the ‘bitter pill’ handed to her by the International Monetary Fund and has already devalued the currency but she articulated why and her actions so far have attracted international confidence and support. She is already putting in place safety nets for the poorest and her government is negotiating transparently and it seems quite fairly with the unions around salary increases to cope with the sharp increase in the price of goods.
A role model for women in Malawi
A young Malawian women in the audience got up to say how excited she is that Malawi has a woman President and that Joyce Banda is a role model for all women in Malawi but she asked, will Joyce continue her commitment to women and girls now she is President? Coming from a women’s rights activist background this was obviously a topic Joyce felt very comfortable with and she talked about her days as a women’s rights activist.
She also mentioned a few initiatives. She has established the Joyce Banda Foundation and has initiated a project to improve conditions for market women such as improving sanitation facilities, establishing crèches and helping the women establish a revolving savings and loan scheme.
Maternal health and safe motherhood
She has also re-established a second Presidential initiative for maternal health and safe motherhood. What is refreshing about this new initiative is that not only is she focusing on improving the delivery of health outcomes for women but she is also addressing the root causes of poor maternal health. She wants to reduce child marriage and discourage women from giving birth at home, which she says are the key contributors to maternal mortality and fistula (of which Malawi has one of the highest rates in the world). She wants to launch a nationwide campaign to educate traditional leaders about the dangers of child marriage and early pregnancy and become advocates encouraging parents to keep their girls at school and women to give birth in clinics.
On the international stage
She has Malawi at heart but is quite pan-African in her thinking. She identifies herself as both a Malawian and an African and early on in her speech referred more broadly to Africa in the globalised world than to Malawi.
Following the event she was off to the United States where they have organised for her to meet five current and former women Heads of State. Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall at that meeting…
You can listen to the audio recording of the event at Chatham House online.
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