FORBES WOMAN AFRICA met up with former Malawian President Joyce Banda in Johannesburg just before her return to Malawi after four years away. One of four female presidents Africa has ever had, she spoke about her plans but is guarded about her return to politics.
During her time away from Malawi, Joyce Banda served as a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the United States, and has just finished writing a book, From Day One, on the issues around women and the girl child.
What are you looking forward to and how does it feel?
I am so happy I have done all I wanted to do and am going home. There’s much excitement in Malawi… I guess I am the only one not excited… It has been a week of hype and I am totally surprised and humbled because I didn’t know just how much Malawians love me.
We don’t have any female presidents on the continent at the moment… why are there so few women in politics?
Women’s leadership is under attack globally. Start from Australia, look at what happened to Julia Gillard. And you go to Thailand and look at what happened to the former Prime Minister…
I’ve been speaking a lot in the US and the question I always ask is ‘tell me why [as] the oldest democracy for 200 years, [why] you have not managed to have one woman in state house’?
Coming back to Africa, we haven’t done badly, at least we had four women. We went to Beijing in 1995; we agreed that it was part of the work plan that we are going to come back and get into leadership. I remember asking Mrs Gertrude Mongella, who was the Secretary-General of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, ‘because men are already sitting in the seats, how can we go to parliament?’ They said ‘go and push them if you have to’. And we went home, tried our level best and got into leadership.
In Africa, go one by one, and check how they left, go and see what Catherine Samba-Panza is going through in Central African Republic; see what is happening in Mauritius to our friend who just left a few weeks ago. So at the end of the day, you ask, why is it we don’t have any more female leaders in Africa? My answer is we have done well as a continent, we have found ways of getting our women into state house, but perhaps what we have to do is learn how to keep them there. And Africa hasn’t done badly.
Somebody asked me, what can I say about feminism? I said ‘no, Africa shall have it all; it shall design its own because we can’t copy what’s happening elsewhere unless we are convinced it’s working there’. But how can we copy other models where women are still not getting equal pay, where women can’t even go on maternity leave, where for 200 years, there’s no female president? The continent with the highest number of women in parliament is Africa – three countries have 40% women in cabinet. And the time I was head of state, I took advantage of that position to appoint my fellow women… The advantage of us cutting into state house is we focus on social issues; we want people to have electricity, clean water and fuel every day. We want hospitals to have medicines, we want schools to have school materials but the challenge is how do we keep women in state house?
Is the patriarchal mind-set to blame?
It is. In fact I think the death of Mama Winnie Mandela and all that has been revealed these past weeks has opened the debate and women are sitting down and saying, ‘how could we not have seen?’ Because we never did… That’s what her daughter said when she spoke at the funeral: ‘why did you people wait until my mother is gone, to vindicate her?’ That is the kind of pain women are going through and nobody seems to care. I don’t know why the media doesn’t seem to dig more into this misogyny, and abuse to women leaders…
Do you have presidential ambitions again?
No. It is not up to me. I don’t care about going to state house… I am just going back home.
Are you returning to politics?
I am not planning anything. From this far, I don’t know the political landscape on the ground. I am highly experienced in politics. And I was very fortunate. When my husband retired [as chief justice], I decided I can enter politics. So I did at age 54, I was late… the president didn’t allow me to join the national executive committee so he sent me down to the grass roots. So I came from the grass roots as a treasurer in the village. I had the opportunity to study and I was fortunate when elected head of women in 2003 in my party…
What have you been up to in the last four years?
…In the time I have been away from home, I’ve spoken 37 times, received 12 international awards, written two papers, written a book, been appointed to five international awards and received an honorary doctorate. Everybody who has been with me in the US know I’ve run non-stop. It’s been time well spent. At the Woodrow Wilson Centre, they even assisted me to draw up a tool kit. I can now go into any country and speak with authority about how I feel women should be treated, how the space should be created at the table for women to participate in leadership.
In Malawi, what are your plans for women and children, through your foundation?
The Joyce Banda Foundation is bigger than Joyce Banda. I established it in 1997 when I received the Africa Prize so it cuts across all parties. It has 500,000 women beneficiaries in micro finance, it has sent to school 6,500 girls, it has a sponsorship program, and a youth program. We have five pillars in the Joyce Banda foundation: one is income, we believe that in the rural household if there is income the woman is in control and can provide better health and nutrition and even send girls to school and will also make decisions about her life; she can make choices to stay or leave an abusive place.
The second pillar is education for the girl child, because if she doesn’t go to school, then she is exposed to all harmful traditions. The third is maternal health. My research has shown that those that have died giving birth are between the ages of 11 to 19. So there is a connection with education. This girl child should go to secondary school. The four years in secondary school is not just about her future, it is also about her health.
The fourth pillar is leadership. I believe we must find ways; hence my research, find ways of allowing more and more women to enter politics and participate in leadership. And the last one is human rights which is a cross-cutting pillar.
What is the current investment climate in Malawi?
I believed the day I left office, I needed to step aside and look the other way. And provide an opportunity for the sitting president to freely show his capabilities. He is my president because I conceded and I accepted that he can become president, so the last thing that I want to is poke my nose into what he is doing right and not.
I just feel sad and surprised when they say people are going 36 hours without electricity… I don’t understand some of the hardships my Malawians are facing because I say this boat is connected when you ask about the investment climate. There is nobody who is going to invest in a country that has 170MW of electricity. That doesn’t happen.
– Interviewed by Methil Renuka; for the full interview, visit www.cnbcafrica.com