Dr. Joyce Banda served as the first female president of Malawi from 2012 to 2014 and founded the People’s Party in 2011. Prior to serving as president, Dr. Banda was the first female vice president of Malawi. She is the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation, the National Association of Business Women, and the Young Women Leaders Network.
You are involved with several initiatives for increasing African women’s participation in politics. Can you tell me more about your experience advocating for more female representation in African governments?
First, what we have found in Africa as challenges for women seeking to stand for elected office are a lack of economic empowerment. To be able to compete on equal ground with men, women [need to have] economic empowerment themselves to move into politics. About four or five of us that were in the National Association of Business Women ended up in government. There’s that stubborn link between having money and standing for office. In Malawi, there is no affirmative action. The second is lack of appropriate training designed [for]African women, because of our cultural environment that we have to compete and campaign in. The third is the abuse women get [while] campaigning and the negative media that happens when women are campaigning. That is also discouraging women – professional women – from running for office because they see how we are treated, names that we are called, the scandals, and they feel that it’s not worth it. So they don’t run.
In order for us to support women in Malawi, [we must work on] addressing the issue of lack of economic empowerment. The international community stepped in to assist us, particularly the Norwegian government, worked with UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme, to provide 100,000 kwacha to every female candidate, regardless of their party, to compete and campaign. For us, it was proof that money plays a part. We went from 11 women to 27 to 45 [running for office].
What is the future of African women in politics?
What I see and what I’m advocating, is for us to find ways of supporting as many women as possible in participating in leadership and decision-making. When women get into positions of leadership, in any sector and at any level, they focus more on issues that affect women and children. When I became head of state, the first program I created – before I even established a cabinet – was to establish the Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood. When women get into leadership, one, they focus more on social issues, and two, they take risks: They do things differently, [and] they are not afraid. It’s not about the power; it’s about serving people. [Women] will take risks for the benefit of the people that they serve. Women leaders appoint fellow women to positions of leadership. When I became president, I appointed the first [female] chief justice, the first head of civil service, the first solicitor general, two governors of the reserve bank, and seven district commissioners.
You are involved with the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, an organization concerned with advancing universal access to reproductive health. Why is this an important issue to you? What have you learned from your experience advocating for better maternal health for all?
In dealing with maternal mortality, I’ve not only been involved with the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. In fact, the reason why I was asked to serve is because of the work I’ve done in reproductive health. But I must say that I’ve been very, very fortunate in my life that all the things that I’ve championed have originated from personal experience. I almost died giving birth to my fourth-born child. I suffered what they call postpartum hemorrhage. From then on, I decided that I was going to spend my life fighting this unnecessary death of women giving life. What I have learned is that some of the reasons why these women die are very simple to correct. I think that everybody in leadership must give women a chance to [experience] motherhood and enjoy better health. But in any case, [maternal health] is one of the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals. So it is important for us to achieve that. The tragedy is that during the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), we didn’t achieve two goals that have to do with women. I think that is a shame that we didn’t achieve MDG 3, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, or MDG 5, improving maternal health. I feel that it’s necessary for us to achieve that. It’s not fair that women should die giving birth, not when other parts of the world are enjoying total freedom from death and so on.
What was your proudest achievement while serving as president of Malawi?
One, to turn around the collapsed economy and the reforms I implemented to achieve that, and secondly, that I [reduced] maternal mortality from 675 per 100,000 live births to 460 [per 100,000 live births] in 24 months.
What are some of the deep challenges you encountered as president?
The fight against corruption. I didn’t know that when you fight corruption, they [will] fight you back that viciously. I was totally unprepared. And it really, really stressed me out. But at the end of the day, I was hoping that I set a precedent. What makes me really proud is that the trials are ongoing, successful convictions are taking place, and people are serving sentences.
How can Malawi break that cycle of corruption?
Corruption is an issue every leader must tackle, not only in Africa, but globally. [What] African countries can do to become independent is that we must insist that what we want is fair trade. It’s not going to be about aid, but trade. Western countries and Africa must work together. Support us and help us to produce, but also [help us] to add value so that we don’t export our jobs.
Do you think that the legacy you left behind after serving as president is being honored by the current administration?
No, it’s not. In an African country, that’s very rare. What happens immediately after one leader leaves [is that] everything is turned around, whether it was good or not. It was me who kept those programs of my former late president that I felt benefited Malawians. Even as I’m talking to you now, the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health has been abolished [and Malawi has] moved up again from 460 [deaths per 100,000 live births] to 510 [deaths per 100,000 live births].
The legacy depends on how Malawians feel and what they say; it is not dependent on the actions of government.