by Jessica Mack
April 24, 2012 – 9:55am
Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack suddenly this month, enabling Vice President Joyce Banda to succeed the helm. This will almost certainly change – and perhaps save – the lives of millions of Malawian women.
Banda, the country’s first female Vice President and leader of the opposition party, had been embroiled in a political struggle for months as Bingu had tried to remove her. Bingu’s move to edge her out was part of his tightening grip overall, foreshadowing what could have been another stubborn and potentially bloody transfer of power after 2014 elections, and almost certainly not to Banda.
With all due respect to the late Bingu, his death opened a rare window for reform Malawi, and golden opportunity – especially for Malawi’s women. Joyce Banda is a widely-respected and heralded champion for women’s rights and health, and has never been shy to speak her mind about it.
Banda is Southern Africa’s first female head of state, and the continent’s second (after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf). Isobel Coleman at the Center for Foreign Relations recently called her “a remarkable person who despite the odds, just might be able to put Malawi on a positive path,” as compared to her “disaster” of a predecessor. Banda left an abusive marriage as a young mother of three, and went on to found several small businesses and organizations for women before being elected to Parliament in 1999.
She is a woman of both voice and action. Almost immediately upon taking office, she issued a directive to the Ministry of Health to appoint two OB/GYN specialists to the Ethel Mutharika Maternity Hospital to support deliveries there. In a recent press conference, she said she would do anything in her capacity to ensure that the country’s maternal mortality rate is reduced. Banda herself suffered excessive bleeding after giving birth, and nearly lost her life. Though the United Nations estimates that maternal mortality in Malawi was nearly halved between 1998 and 2008, still 3,000 women a year die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth. Just 42 percent of married women report modern contraceptive use.
Cultural taboos around women’s sexual and reproductive health, as well as the sheer inaccessibility of services define reality for many Malawian women. A lack of skilled personnel, whether doctors, midwives, or community health workers, to help women deliver safely is also a major factor in maternal deaths. Unsafe abortion is likely a major contributor as well. Abortion in Malawi is prohibited entirely, except to save a woman’s life, and even then spousal permission is required. Perhaps this is something Banda might be willing to step up and address. Systemic devaluation of women’s lives is a problem too, prompting Banda to single out village chiefs as gatekeepers for maternal health in the largely rural nation.
“They are the custodians of our culture and tradition. If you don’t include those chiefs, if you don’t integrate them, you can’t win in the area of maternal health.”
The year 2015 is the deadline to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight major targets to improving the lives and health of the world’s poorest. A recent report by the Malawian Government says the country is on-track to meet five of the eight goals, though MDG 5 – to improve maternal health – is not one of them. African leaders are under increasing pressure from their constituents and donors to turn things around for women in their countries and there are few glimmers of hope. Banda could make huge waves on this issue in just a short while.
Banda is not only an advocate for women’s health, but economic empowerment too. In 1997, she won the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Landlocked Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy relies heavily on agriculture, and women farmers form the engine that runs it. Banda has noted that women in Malawi are conspicuously absent when it comes to economic decision-making, and that it is critical to put more of the country’s money in the hands of its mothers. If anyone can do that, it looks like she can.
Banda is also a staunch supporter of girls’ education. Last year, in a Q&A with the Global Post, she told the story of a childhood friend forced to leave high school after the $12 school fees became too high.
“I went on to go to college and I became the vice president of Malawi. She is still where she was 30 years ago. The vicious cycle of poverty kept her there and took away her options. I made up my mind … whatever would happen in my life, I would try to send girls to schools.”
Such clarity of vision forward and backward is rare in a leader, but seems to be Banda’s defining trait.
She has already distinguished herself as a committed and articulate leader on women’s health and rights. Now with the reigns, in a historic twist of events, she can finally demonstrate what that vision, realized, can do for women.
Follow Jessica Mack on Twitter, @fleetwoodjmack