The no-frills president

2012-08-27 00:00

WHEN President Joyce Banda of Malawi made her maiden appearance at the annual Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Heads of State Summit that took place recently in Maputo, she took a commercial flight there instead of using a luxury jet. The saving was approximately U.S.$49 000.

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 her first four months in office, Banda has demonstrated that African leaders can give more to their citizens. She has restored the 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.

She has defied the lavish lifestyles that characterise most African leaders. She discarded the car fleet in her convoy and consultants have since been identified to look at leasing or selling the £8,4 million 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”.

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 the faith of the donor community. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), Britain — Malawi’s biggest donor — the U.S. 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 co-operated 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 believes in the emancipation of women, especially in her country where patriarchal values are still dominant, and she has introduced a number of initiatives that will positively change women’s lives for the better.

Soon after assuming power, Banda launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, a project that will focus on improving 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 giving access 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 ...”

In this regard, she launched another project, Support to the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Agenda. The MK1,4 billion (U.S.$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/Aids and poverty.

She has also tried to reform the media and got support of the media after she repealed 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.

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 practise 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 are deemed unfit to own land by their male counterparts. Undoubtedly, a 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.

All the same, Banda provides a leadership style that lacks in Africa and it should be encouraged. With the looming 10 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.

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