Kudos to Joyce Banda for progressive leadership

President Joyce Banda of Malawi made her maiden appearance at the annual Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Heads of State and Government Summit that took place from 17 to 18 August in Maputo, Mozambique. At the same meeting, Banda got elected to the post of Deputy Chairperson of the regional body. The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development advocates for 50% representation of women in politics and decision-making by 2015. So far, Banda is the only woman Head of State in SADC.

In her first four months in office, Banda has demonstrated that African leaders can give more to their citizens. She has restored faith of many citizens in what African leaders can do and above all she has proved that women make a difference in politics and decision-making.

Banda flew a commercial flight to Mozambique and it cost US$11 000 for her return travel compared to US$60 000 had she opted for a luxurious jet. She pointed out that she “wanted to set an example that in difficult economic times that we are in, we can forego some of the luxuries. I know, when we correct our economic situation, we will be able to fly our own jet, it may be another President after me but I am sure we will.”

In addition, she has defied the lavish lifestyles that characterises most African leaders. She discarded the car fleet on her convoy and consultants have since been identified to look at leasing or selling the £8.4m presidential jet her predecessor bought in 2009. Banda believes that “the proceeds [that will be accrued] can be used to provide basic services to Malawi’s poorest people who urgently need help following the vital devaluation of the currency.”

Her Excellency Mrs Joyce Banda and other SADC leaders duting national anthem singing

While some of her critics have accused her of travelling too much, her party has come out strongly to defend her. She has had to lead Malawi in an economic recovery process and has restored faith of the donor community. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), Britain- Malawi’s biggest donor, the US government and other bilateral donors have pledged to support the country on its way to economic recovery.

Banda must also be praised for taking a tough stance on African leadership. In July, she publicly announced that she would arrest the president of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir for committing crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant of arrest against Al Bashir in 2009 and no African leader has cooperated with the ICC except Banda. The meeting moved to Ethiopia, as fellow African leaders did not agree with Banda’s stance.

Her new post has not overshadowed the gender activist in Banda. She still, believes in the emancipation of women especially in her country were patriarchal values are still dominant Banda has introduced a number of initiatives that will positively change women’s lives for the better. It is also encouraging that in speeches she continues to reiterate her commitment to empowering women.

Soon after assuming power, Banda launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, a project that will focus on improving the current poor maternal health. Speaking at the launch of the initiative, she said, “mothers should not lose life in the process of giving life.” She is discouraging child marriages and home births. She rightly argues that these are key reasons for the country’s challenges around maternal mortality and fistula – the World Health Organisation has found that Malawi has some of the highest rates of both in the world.

In addition, she intends to strengthen this initiative by launching a nationwide campaign to educate traditional leaders about the dangers of child marriage and early pregnancy. The same leaders should instead encourage parents to keep girls in school and persuade women to give birth at clinics.

While speaking to Sky News International in July, Banda said “it’s not just about family planning and givingaccess to contraception; it’s about empowering women and giving them the economic freedom so they can choose and make decisions about the size of their family…”

Thus she launched another project, Support to the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Agenda. The MK1.4 billion (USD $5.2 million) initiative aims to contribute to the acceleration of efforts towards the advancement of gender equality and equity as a human right for the reduction of HIV and AIDS and poverty.

She has also tried to reform the media and got support of the media after she repealed repealing the amendment to section 46 of Malawi’s Penal Code, which allowed the Minister of Information to ban all publications that were deemed not to be in the public interest.

Nevertheless, there have been a few worrying developments in as far as women empowerment issues are concerned. Banda’s cabinet constitutes eight women (27%) out of the 30 cabinet posts available. This is far below the 50% target set out in the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. A woman heads none of the key ministries.

Banda’s cabinet appointments show a failure to achieve the very equality she has championed over the years. Meanwhile, the confidence many Malawians have in Banda illustrates that people in the country believe in female leadership. Banda could have used this opportunity to appoint able female leaders who can further prove to all Malawians that women are perfectly able to serve and deliver if given a chance.

The 2012/13 national budget completely sidelines gender issues. It does not take into account the gender inequalities in economic empowerment and it is presented without sex-disaggregated data that can assist in mapping interventions and who between women and men should be targeted. Gender experts argue that political leaders can have an influential role in the realisation of gender equality by specifically detailing – and budgeting for – what they intend to do for women.

A critique of the budget also reveals that while a fertiliser subsidy programme has taken the lion’s share of the budget, this programme, which is set to benefit 1.5 million farm families, does not give sex disaggregated data of its beneficiaries. Agriculture forms the backbone of Malawi’s economy with close to 90% of the population taking part in it – a majority of these are women living in abject poverty. According to Women’s Campaign International, women account for more than 71% of all full-time farmers in Malawi. Agriculture contributes more than one third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 90% of export revenues.

However, most Malawian women practice subsistence farming and do not see agriculture as a business or way out of poverty. Because Malawi is a highly patriarchal society, women are denied many rights, including land rights and deemed unfit to own land by their male counterparts. Undoubtedly, lack of agricultural resources such as fertiliser exacerbates this problem.

The president could have used the subsidy programme not only as a food security measure but also as a tool for the emancipation of Malawian women. If implemented thoughtfully and with gender in mind, agri-business projects can help bring women out of poverty.

The president ought to always remember that empowering women economically and politically is not only democratically right; it is the right thing to do. All the same, Banda provides a leadership style that lacks in Africa and it should be encouraged. It is hoped that African citizens will see her as a model of what women bring to the political table. With the looming ten elections in SADC between now and 2015, we could see the region voting for more women and also political parties nominating women for top posts.

*Daud Kayisi is a Malawian gender activist and the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Officer at Gender Links.

This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, special series on the 2012 SADC Heads of State Summit, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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