Malawi’s urgent window of feminist opportunity

If you don’t know about President Joyce Banda, now’s the time to introduce yourself.

Banda, named one of the eight most fascinating Africans of 2012 by The New Yorker, came into office in April of last year after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, passed away. Her roots are deep in feminist grassroots activism. Before becoming Vice President in 2009, she was a Member of Parliament and Minister for Gender, Children’s Affairs and Community Services. Before that, she was the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation, founder of the National Association of Business Women (NABW), Young Women Leaders Network and the Hunger Project. She has and continues to serve on the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, a group of 16 sitting and former heads of state, high-level policymakers and other leaders committed to advancing reproductive justice. Chaired by former President of Ireland and all around badass, Mary Robinson, they are trying to mobilize the political will and financial resources necessary to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015 – a key target of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

In other words, this woman cares about a lot of the same shit you do, and she’s actually a head of state. It’s sort of mind blowing.

Banda joins her friend, Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the second female head of state in Africa. Many believe that Banda and Sirleaf have the potential to spark a firestorm of new leadership on the continent of Africa, led by women whose values are closely aligned with the international feminist movement. But here’s the thing…

She’s only got until May 2014 guaranteed. That’s when the presidential election will come around again and she’ll need to be elected by the people. The press within Malawi is hard on her, particularly since she’s made gutsy choices around the economy there. And in a country where the marriage age for women is still 15 and there’s rampant misogyny, it’s not going to be easy even if she kicks ass in office.

She’s already putting a lot of her energy into a new initiative around safe motherhood (it’s the second deadliest place to give birth in Africa), and continuing to support the community health workers throughout the country (there aren’t enough) to push family planning access and information to rural women (the birth rate is 5.7 children per family). She has big plans for expanding women’s access to comprehensive healthcare, by training more midwives, building more “waiting homes” where women from rural parts of the country can relocate in anticipation of giving birth, and even doing a hearts and minds campaign with the tribal chiefs. All that, and she’s hell bent on giving women more economic opportunity so she can deal with the root problem: poverty.

If she succeeds, she might just become the next model of what grassroots leadership in the highest office looks like and Malawi might become a model for the rest of Africa and the world. If she fails, quite bluntly, a lot of women will die. Let’s hope she gets the international support she deserves.


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