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High Hopes For Malawi’s First Woman President

On 7April 2012 Joyce Banda made history by becoming the first female President of Malawi and the first in the Southern African Development Community (SADC)[1] following the sudden death of former President, Bingu wa Mutharika. The new President has an enormous undertaking to address the serious economic crisis in the country, and with a strong activist track record, civil society is hopeful that she will champion women rights.

AWID spoke to Emma Kaliya, Chairperson of NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGOGCN) in Malawi about the appointment and hopes for the second woman President in Africa.

By Susan Tolmay

The Republic of Malawi is a small (118,000 km2/ 45,560 sq mi) landlocked country in southeast Africa with an estimated population of over 14 million. The last elections in 2009 saw women’s representation in parliament increase eight percent from 14% to 22%, and the country has improved its overall gender gap rating from 81 out of 115 countries in 2006 to 65 out of 135 countries in 2011[i]. But Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 75% of the population living on less than $1 a day[ii].

AWID: What is the current economic and political context in Malawi?

Emma Kaliya (EK): Malawi has been facing many challenges both politically and economically. In the political arena the former President, Bingu wa Mutharika and government at the time started changing laws in the country and were trying to prevent the former vice president, Joyce Banda, from participating in government and becoming the next President when Murathika’s term came to end in 2014, which she was entitled to according to the Malawi constitution. Instead she was expelled form the ruling party because she refused to endorse the President’s brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika, as the next President in 2014.

There was a lot of agitation regarding the President bringing in his brother to become the next president and the government was also trying to silence anyone who disagreed with them and it became difficult for civil society and opposition parties who did not agree with their views. The environment was difficult and violent and this brought in a lot of fear.

At the same time the government was not respecting issues of human rights. The British High Commissioner was expelled on the pretext that he had sent a cable to the UK highlighting how militant the government had become, following which Britain cut aid to Malawi. As a result of the stopping of aid we are having increased problems around fuel shortages and lack of forex and many donors have stopped their programmes in the country because of non-compliance with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) requirements. So there have been a lot of social and economic challenges that have affected all sectors, like hospitals - if you don’t have forex you cannot import drugs, if you have no fuel you cannot operate ambulances and travel around. As a result Malawi was drifting in chaos and confusion.

AWID: What is the status of women in Malawi?

EK: There are several issues. When we compare the situation to the past few years, women were not very active in the economic sector but slowly we are seeing more women participating in this sector where they are able to compete comparatively with men, although it is still difficult for them to go for bigger procurement opportunities. In agriculture, we see that women still dominate as subsistence farmers and are not as involved in commercial farming. But there are programmes to empower women to become commercial farmers, and we are hoping that the new government will continue with these programmes and that we will see women benefit from this in the coming years.

The issue of gender-based violence (GBV) is still there, without a doubt, but one good thing is that through reports from the media and police we can see that there has been empowerment in communities, where people have been able to speak out and condemn violence and they are able to use the structures that are now in place to report GBV, which was not the case before.

In terms of education we are also seeing more young women going into tertiary education. The government introduced a 50/50 requirement for education but there are still challenges related to high drop out rates for girls at the higher levels of education. Pregnancy and early marriage is still an issue, but we are seeing a reduction in this and now girls are able to go back to school after having babies, which is different from the past when they were not allowed to go back to school.

Reproductive health is still a concern, we have high maternal mortality rates and there is still a lot of work to do in this area. The former government tried to address this and the new President has also instituted a programme addressing maternal health. There are challenges around unsafe abortions, because in Malawi abortion is criminalized and therefore it affects many women who have backstreet abortions. This is something that we are working on in the network, with the support of Ipas, to look at how we can lobby government to look at this law.

On HIV and AIDS, Malawi is doing well, we still have challenges but it is one of the countries that has done well in terms of providing anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) to women and especially pregnant women. There is also a programme running for women living positively with AIDS. Fortunately these programmes were not affected by the economic crisis in the country and they were able to continue.

AWID: What has been the overall response in the country regarding the appointment of Joyce Banda as the first woman President of Malawi?

EK: Before she became President there was a big pronouncement from the ruling party saying: Malawi is not ready for a woman President. This annoyed a lot of people because we didn’t know who the person is who makes people ready for a woman President. So people started discussing this and then people started supporting her. Those in power were the ones who were openly showing that they were against her, but the country was supporting her because it was her time to become the President because that is what the constitution says, regardless of what people think about it.

I was there during the swearing in ceremony and she had the support from that day, even from the opposition parties. People are saying that we need to support her.

AWID: What was the reaction of the women’s movement to appointment?

EK: As civil society we are quite excited because Joyce Banda has a strong activist background and we feel that she is part of us, she was the first Chairperson of the NGOGCN. She has assured us that she is one of us and that the space can be opened once again for civil society to operate freely. So there is a lot of hope.

AWID: How are women’s groups planning on engaging the new President?

EK: We had the first big meeting with the her last month, where she brought women’s groups together to discuss the issue of the African Women’s Decade, because there has not been much activity around this since it was launched. We had a consultative meeting to popularise the African Women’s Decade and we flagged a lot of issues. The President is eager to see that we are able to roll out the African Women’s Decade as per the themes that are already there, cementing on existing efforts. Meaning we cannot talk about this without talking about the Maputo Protocol or without talking about the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, for us in the SADC region. It is about using existing mechanisms to reach our targets. We are quite excited because the President is the one who initiated this whole process, which shows that she is already supportive to the cause so we can move forward together to make a difference.

Litha Musyimi-Ogana from the African Union’s (AU) Directorate of Women, Gender and Development also attended the meeting to give information regarding the AU, to reinforce what we wanted to discuss nationally. The AU Summit will be taking place in Malawi later this year and many women’s groups in Africa have expressed interest to join us in Malawi to use this forum to raise issues, including the ratification of the Maputo Protocol. They want to use the forum knowing that there is a woman President in Malawi who will advance these issues. There is a lot of hope - now we have two women Presidents in Africa it means that slowly our voices will be heard at this Summit because we have our fellow women sitting there.

But we are also cautious because of the huge task that is ahead for the President who announced recently that it may take up to 18 months to restore the economy and what we have lost. It is a big challenge. While we have high expectations we should also understand that she is taking over a system that was completely devastated. At the same time there is the challenge of working with the diverse groups across the country to ensure consensus across all parties and interest groups.

We know that she must be quite overwhelmed with the task ahead, so what we need to do is to see how best we can support her so that she is able to deliver.

[1] Members States that form part of SADC are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe

[i] p 240 - 241