Last year in April 2012, Malawi President Mutharika died. Depending on where you live, it was not a noticeable event. However, in Malawi it was a very important milestone because the vice president at the time was a woman, Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first female vice president. And then, upon the death of President Mutharika, the same president who tried to push Mrs. Banda out of the vice presidency, Her Excellency Mrs. Joyce Banda became Malawi’s fourth president and Malawi’s first female president.
If you believe in a conflict trap in which a (generally) poor country falls into recurring conflict, conflict traps tend to happen in countries with a high degree of ethnic diversity. One thing that often happens is that the country’s leader protects or helps her own ethnic group more than other groups. Even in a country like the U.S. there are social conversations about whether or not President Obama has done enough for Blacks in the U.S. Political commentators speak of the need for a leader to be cautious so that the leader is not seen as favouring a particular group.
Now, look at President Joyce Banda. She becomes the president of a very poor nation handed to her through the death of the former president who left the country in shambles. Britain, the United States, the European Union (EU), the African Development Bank (ADB), Union (AU), Germany, and Norway had all suspended financial aid due to President Mutharika’s attacks on democracy and whimsical policies. To get out of this situation, she decides to make some bold moves, and we all know bold moves are often controversial.
Within her first year, she devalues the currency to hopefully attract foreign investment going against the policy of the former president. She announces her intention to overturn laws criminalizing homosexuality. To increase government revenue she sells the presidential jet and 60 luxury cars (generating $15 million). And she does one really interesting thing: instead of being scared to protect, favour, encourage, and aid people like her (women), she decided to do everything she could for girls education and women’s health and empowerment.
And this is what I love: Malawi’s first female president putting women first. As research has shown, girls’ education has one of the highest returns on investment of any development intervention, if not the highest. In the medium-to-long run, girls education reduces vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, it increases financial management of families including savings, it decreases the population by decreasing the number of children that the educated girls have, etc. The list goes on and on. And President Joyce Banda—an educated woman who has benefited from that education, from women’s movements that encouraged her to leave an abusive husband, from country economic climates in which she ran businesses and helped other women to do the same—this President Joyce Banda has put women’s health, education, and empowerment front and center of her domestic policy. If you have a moment, watch this short CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) video of President Banda’s focus on women’s health and empowerment.