It is a great honour for me to be here this morning to address The BBC 100 Women Conference.
I have been asked to speak on: “Women representation in public life: examining their challenges and opportunities” where I will look at the following questions:
“why are there still so few women leaders in many parts of the world? How can we improve representation of women in politics and governments around the world?
How can we overcome challenges that hinder women having a role in politics, and my personal journey in politics as a woman”.
Empowering women and fully leveraging their skills and leadership in the global economy, in politics and in society are essential to achieving sustainable development of any nation and enhance these countries’ competitiveness. This is important as diverse leadership is more likely to find innovative solutions to foster inclusive growth.
Women have made important strides in public life across the world. They increasingly serve as heads of state, parliamentarians, ambassadors, Supreme Court judges and senior administrative officers.
As we know, women constitute the majority of our populations in the world and when we talk about issues of representation, we are actually talking mostly about women. These issues range from uneven access to decision-making posts across the public sector to the persistent pay-gap and women’s concentration in lower-paid occupational groups.
Allow me to cite some of the challenges that women face on their journey to public life:
• Limited access to formal education
• Lack of economic empowerment
• Patriarchal society
• Lack of role models and mentoring
• Failure to exercise their rights
These challenges negatively affect the development of women and their ability to rise to public offices
We must then ask, why do we still face these challenges despite many in-country and global efforts to close gender gaps and empower women. Is it not surprising therefore that among the Millennium Development Goals that we will not achieve relate to women?
I am talking about Millennium Development Goals 3 (promoting gender equality and empowerment of women) and 5 (improving maternal health).
I am of the view that women do not get into leadership positions by chance. Therefore deliberate policies and conducive environments need to be created to allow women participation in public life. For many years, I have argued that we cannot achieve Millennium Development Goals 3 and 5 unless we take a holistic approach in dealing with women’s issues because most of these issues are interconnected.
Indeed a holistic and an integrated approach is key in overcoming gender gaps and women underrepresentation. There is a stubborn link between the economic empowerment of women and education, health, leadership and women’s rights.
In this regard, I wish to propose that in order to empower women and reduce gender gaps, we need to take a holistic approach on five pillars:
i) Wealth creation (Women Entrepreneurship):
Rights based approach to development that has special impact on the empowerment of women can help reduce many negative influences, attitudes and customs that suppress women to realize their full leadership potential.
Why should we be concerned and committed to getting women into leadership positions in public life, if I may ask? Why is it important in our times?
In my view,
i) Women leaders feel the urgency of doing something about situations around them.
ii) Women leaders bring human face into policies and programs where issues of women and children come to the policy table.
iii) Women leaders are able to strike a balance between big projects and small ones in order to realise inclusive and sustainable development that delivers healthy and happy communities.
iv) Women leaders have an inclusive, team building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.
As I have already argued, when women have built an economic base they can comfortably compete in politics and move on into the public space. And when they are in public office, they are likely to support fellow women through job creation, appointments, creation of policies and programs that support women including enhancing conducive environments for trade and investments. In this way, we are able to create a cycle of success stories that have enormous multiplier effects on the empowerment of women.
1. When I got economically empowered through running my own busineses, in 1989, I established National Association of Business Women (NABW) to help empower many women who were like me to move out of poverty, oppressive environments and become active citizens. We reached 50,000 and disbursed microfinance loans to 20,000 women. And many of the members of NABW moved up and took many leadership roles in their communities, in churches and even in politics at national level.
The impact study on the project, which was funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), showed that 73 percent of the beneficiaries were out of poverty, 84 percent earned respect at household level and in their societies, 40 percent had graduated from informal economy to small and medium enterprises.
The study also showed that children born into these families were able to go to school; the women were able to take up leadership positions in their communities.
2. In 2000, I formed Young Women Leaders Network to motivate and mentor young girls into leadership roles
3. Further on, when I was Head of State, I appointed very qualified women into positions of power. These included nine Cabinet Ministers, Chief Justice, Chief Secretary to Government, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Heads of Diplomatic Missions, Solicitor General, two Deputy Reserve Bank Governors, three Justices of the High Court, and Principal Secretaries for key ministries, Chairpersons and Chief Executive Officers of statutory corporations.
I will be failing in my duty if I do not highlight some of the key achievements that I made while serving as State President: This is to demonstrate that women leaders are risk takers. They place the people they serve before their career.
Devaluation; Press Freedom; Liquidation of Air Malawi; Tripartite Elections; Economic Recovery Plan; Fight against theft in government
By the time I left office (2013/14 financial year), an international audit firm, Ernst and Young had predicted that Malawi was positioned to be one of the five fastest growing economies in Africa in the next five years (2012-2017), growing with GDP average rate of 7 percent per year. Malawi was projected to be the highest on the Continent of Africa as estimated by Ernst and Young based on the country’s economic performance of 2012-2014.
• 1.8% to 6.3% growth
• food harvest of 3.9 million metric tonnes with surplus harvest of 1 million metric tonnes
• 35% to 85% industrial growth due to availability of foreign exchange reserves.
In closing, let me call upon women here and far to stand tall and support fellow women in small and big business, in politics and in other fields of calling. As we have noted, when women are given equal opportunity with men, they have positive influence on the family, in communities, in Parliament and even at State House. But more importantly, we need to strengthen the economic base for women, build up their financial standing if they will have to be motivated to enter politics.
It is my hope that in my short presentation, I have painted a picture of a cycle that women should be economically empowered first so that they can enter public life and thereby economically empower fellow women, appoint fellow women and focus on issues that negatively on women and children. The economically empowered women will in turn also start their journey to public life. It will be tragic for this world to ignore this enormous human resource (women).
We are in majority and we brought into this world the other half. Just yesterday, somebody said to me that yes indeed we brought into this world the other half as well as the majority.
We, the women of this world, are not just sitting and waiting for handouts, but ready to take up the challenge and transform our lives.
I thank you for your attention.
- Joyce Banda is former president of Malawi (2012-2014) and founder of Joyce Banda Foundation International