President Joyce Banda: New Focus on Women’s Health and Empowerment in Malawi

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When Joyce Banda unexpectedly ascended to the presidency of Malawi last April, after the death of President Mutharika, many in her country and around the world wondered what her impact would be as Malawi’s first female president. Among the many challenges, her government faces high rates of maternal mortality, high total fertility rates, and high HIV prevalence among women and girls, combined with low levels of women’s economic empowerment and widespread violence against women.

CSIS wanted to learn more about how women leaders in Africa are bringing new attention to women’s health and empowerment in their own countries, and to bring those voices into the discussion about U.S. policy priorities for women’s global health. To do this, we sent a small team to Malawi and Zambia in December 2012.

During an interview with President Banda in Malawi we were able to ask her about these issues. Her response underscored the exciting prospects raised by her tenure as well as the daunting challenges ahead: “You know when a woman gets into State House, they notice the little things that would otherwise be ignored by a man,” with particular emphasis on family planning, maternal mortality, and malnutrition. President Banda was especially passionate that the economic empowerment of women is an essential step to ensure that there is effective family planning: “it is only when a women is economically empowered that she can negotiate at household level with her husband about the number of children that body of hers can have.”

President Banda went on to describe her own compelling personal story of the vital link between education for girls and economic empowerment for women, against a backdrop of violence against women. “I had three children, in an abusive marriage. And then finally I said, no. I have to walk out. For the sake of my children… So for me when I talk about the importance of economic empowerment of women, it’s because I tried it.”

In Malawi, we saw a woman wearing a t-shirt celebrating the first 100 days of JB’s presidency. Banda’s supporters expressed hope about the positive changes underway, from public works projects to the re-engagement of key international donors, to a new initiative on maternal mortality. But even her most ardent supporters acknowledge that real change will take time. Their optimism is being sorely tested by Malawi’s tough economic and social realities, including a legacy of corruption, autocracy, and mismanagement.

Yet President Banda made clear to us that she will “stay the course:” As she explained: “while I’m trying to bring the country back on track, I’m also very mindful of my mission – to make sure that I continue to empower women… So for me, that is what being a leader is all about.”

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