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‘Women’s Leadership Is Under Attack Globally’

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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.

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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

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Woman

Why Age Gives West African Women More Autonomy And Power

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Several studies, covering about 58 countries across the world, found that as women get older they are more able to make decisions independently of men. But scholars have struggled to pin down explanations for this age dividend – why are women given more independence the older they get? We wanted to know what the reasons may be.

In a recent study, we looked at women’s autonomy across age in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. These four West African countries are home to ethnic groups that practice “voodoo”, a religion that spread with the expansion of the Dahomey kingdom in the 17th century.

In these countries women are not equal to men. They sometimes won’t be able to make decisions about their own health – like negotiating safe sex – or on how household incomes could be used.

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In our sample of 21,000 women aged 15 to 49, we found that autonomy in household decision-making increases with age. This was especially true for women who belonged to the four “voodoo-ethnicities”: Fon, Ewe, Adja and Yoruba. We also found that women had even more power if they are menopaused.

Our findings suggest that both age and magico-religious beliefs have a huge role to play in a woman’s independence. Menopaused women from “voodoo-ethnicities” are much more independent to make decisions on how they spend their own earnings, care for their own health, visit family or relatives and what major household purchases need to be made.

These insights are important for female empowerment strategies. To be effective, policies must identify potential agents of change who can, for instance, influence decisions that improve children’s schooling and nutrition or abolish female genital cutting. Despite their apparent agency, elderly women in West Africa have largely been overlooked.

Voodoo and menopause

So, why do women gain more independence the older they get, and especially if they are of voodoo-ethnicities and menopaused?

We analysed data on 21,000 women and their ability to make various decisions. We found that women’s autonomy was related to menstrual bleeding, particularly for voodoo-ethnicities. This was further explored in Benin, the birth place of Voodoo, where we conducted interviews with voodoo priests and menopaused women.

As one woman said:

[Women in menopause] are equipped with supernatural powers. Only she can talk to the ancestors and request their help, assistance and protection. And they respond to her worship and requests, not everyone can do that.

In the interviews we gathered that voodoo adherents worship collective deities (related to the sea, the earth, or thunder) and family deities: ancestors that turn into spirits after death.

The interactions with the family deities are led by a menopaused woman, referred to as the “Tassinon”. Only she can transmit the family members’ prayers and requests to the ancestors and consult the oracle to see if the spirits have accepted the offering and sacrifices.

These alleged powers, in their turn, increase the bargaining power of elderly women in their communities and households.

In situations where the supernatural power of menopaused women has faded, the cultural norm derived from it – increased awe for elderly women – persists.

Our analysis shows that the “Tassinon effect” is sizeable. We created an autonomy index – which looked at a combination of different situations where decisions had to be made and who made them – to measure this and found that it increased their ability to make decisions by about 10%.

As one woman said:

My opinion matters now in all important decisions or issues in the family and in my community. It was not the case before my designation as tassinon. I could not even attend or talk in certain audiences.

Our research provides support for the argument put forward in the African feminist literature, that seniority trumps gender in an African context.

It also adds to the evidence that voodoo continues to play a role in West-Africa. Adherence to voodoo has been proven to affect the governance of natural resources. For instance fishermen who adhere to voodoo are more likely to respect rules related to prohibited fishing gear. It also affects the uptake of preventive health care; for instance because mothers who adhere to voodoo will rely on traditional healers, they may not immunise their children. Now we know that voodoo also affects the level of independence women have in some communities.

The way ahead

A better understanding of cultural attitudes towards elderly African women will become more important for policymakers in the future. As fertility declines and life expectancy increases, elderly women will increase in numbers, both in absolute and relative terms. They could play an important role as agents of change in supporting both child care and female empowerment projects.

For instance in Benin the respect for elderly women is already relied upon in interventions targeting children’s health and nutrition, and in the abolishment of female genital cutting. This could be reinforced and extended to other sectors and to other countries.

Marijke Verpoorten; Associate Professor, University of Antwerp

-Sahawal Alidou; PhD candidate and teaching assistant, University of Antwerp

-The Conversation

The Conversation

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Health

Kenyan Hospital Opens Human Milk Bank – A Rarity In Sub-Saharan Africa

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Kenya’s first human milk bank has opened at Pumwani Maternity Hospital. Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, spoke to the team spearheading APHRC’s research efforts in the establishment of Kenya’s first milk bank.

How long has it taken to open? What were the biggest obstacles?

The process of establishment of human milk banking in Kenya started in 2016. It was spearheaded by the NGO PATH, in partnership with APHRC and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, among other partners. It was rolled out in two phases.

During phase one we assessed people’s perceptions and acceptability of using donated human milk. We also looked at how feasible it would be to set a bank up. The results were encouraging. About 90% of participants were positive about it, 80% would donate their breast milk, and about 60% indicated that they would allow their children to be fed with donated human milk.

A committee was also set-up to provide oversight and guidance on human milk bank work in Kenya. They were sent to South Africa to learn more about the human milk banking process. Finally, local strategies were developed.

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We are now in phase two of the project: the establishment of a pilot human milk bank in Pumwani Maternity Hospital. This includes the launch of a research project which examines its feasibility, effectiveness, acceptability and aims to estimate the cost of establishing an actual human milk bank in Kenya.

There have been challenges. Being a new concept, there have been some logistical challenges, for instance some of the equipment wasn’t locally available so it took longer to get it all done and installed.

There have also been concerns by some community members and health workers over the safety and quality of the donor human milk.

However, we’ve had support from the government which has been critical in addressing the logistical challenges. Advocacy and communication activities are also being rolled out to create awareness on human milk banking and address any concerns.

What is a milk bank and how does it work?

Human milk banks are facilities that systematically collect, pasteurise, test, store, and distribute donated breast milk.

An effective system has many operational processes to ensure it provides safe, high quality donor milk. They start with screening and recruiting donors who must be healthy mothers with surplus milk beyond the needs of their own child’s. Donors must undergo health checks including tests that screen for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C. Diseases could be passed to children through breastmilk.

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Donors must then express milk in hygienic conditions, after which the milk is pasteurised. This involves heating the milk in a water bath at 62.5°c for 30 minutes followed by rapid cooling.

At the bank, the milk is frozen and stored at -20c. When needed, it’s thawed to room temperature and issued to children who don’t have access to their own mothers’ milk. A prescription by a qualified health professional is needed for this.

Why are they needed?

Although breastfeeding is the most natural and best way to feed infants, many babies may lack access to their mother’s milk. This could’ve happened for many reasons – maybe the mother is sick, hasn’t got enough breast milk or is dead.

From our formative research, 44% of newborns in urban health facilities were separated from their mothers for varying periods of time. This ranged from less than an hour to more than 6 hours and even days after birth. Of these infants, only 14% were fed on mother’s own milk during separation. 36% of the newborns weren’t fed on anything during this period and an additional 23% were fed on formula or cow’s milk.

When breastfeeding is not an option, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends donated human milk as a lifesaving alternative. Particularly for babies that were born early, have low birth weight, are orphaned, malnourished or are severely ill.

Evidence paints a very strong picture in favour of donated human milk over infant formula. It’s more effective in reducing the risk of disease and infections – like inflammatory bowel disease, leukemia and respiratory tract infections – in newborn babies and is better tolerated by babies that are born prematurely.

In the US and Brazil, the use of donated human milk was reported to reduce the length of hospital stay for sick infants and save on the cost of health care.

Given the benefits of using donated human milk over infant formula, the WHO has called for the global scale-up of human milk banks. These are expected to increase access to safe donor human milk.

Is this the first of many?

Although WHO recommends that the milk banks be set up, Kenya is just the second, after South Africa, to establish a human milk bank in sub-Saharan Africa – even though it is a pilot.

We hope that human milk banking will be scaled up in Kenya and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, using the evidence we generate from our research.

-The Conversation

-Elizabeth Kimani-Murage; Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Brown University

-Milka Wanjohi, Taddese Zerfu, Esther Anono and Eva Kamande from the African Population and Health Research Center contributed to the writing of this article.

The Conversation

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Sport

Simidele Adeagbo: What I Learned From The Most Terrifying Winter Olympics Sport

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At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, I became the first African and black woman to compete in the daring sport of Skeleton.


Skeleton, in which athletes hurl themselves on a sled, head first, down a frozen ice track at 80 miles per hour, is considered by some to be the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport. I never imagined I would find myself hurtling down an icy hill on a metal, carbon fiber tray of sorts with no brakes, safety belt or steering mechanism.

But when I discovered the sport about 100 days before the Olympics, I was motivated to take it up in hopes to inspire others, break barriers and shift the narrative around Africa on the world’s biggest stage. I ultimately changed the course of Olympic history and learned about the power of having a vision and pushing the limits to break into unknown spaces.

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At the beginning of my journey, I asked myself two very simple questions. ‘Why Not Me? And Why Not Now?’ I knew that someone had to make history as the first African woman to compete in the sport of Skeleton at the Winter Olympics and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be me and it couldn’t be right then. Despite coming from Nigeria, a place with no ice or snow and having no prior knowledge of Skeleton, I had a vision to become the first African woman to compete in Olympic Skeleton.

We often hesitate to establish a vision for the things we want to do thinking that someone else will do it, while also waiting for a perfect time for it to be done. As best-selling author Mel Robbins notes in The 5 Second Rule, “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds or your brain will kill it.” Through my unconventional path, I learned how to keep my vision alive by taking action instantly.

As I pushed to break barriers, I also learned the value of embracing chaos and how to keep moving forward. In the sport of Skeleton, you’re on the edge of danger and control at any given time. This taught me to expect and appreciate the chaos that comes with life.

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Before every run, I take down the track, I have a game plan. But when navigating down massive twists and turns going at speeds faster than cars travel on the freeway, things don’t always go as planned.

Through my experiences on the Skeleton track, I’ve learned to embrace life’s chaotic, unplanned moments and adapt as needed along the way. In the same way, as I was beginning the sport, I would painfully bump into the walls on my way down the track. These are called “hits”. Hits slow you down and are to be avoided as much as possible. But in Skeleton, just as in life, hits are inevitable.

On this journey, I learned to take the hits, no matter how big or small and keep pushing forward.

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Finally, in Skeleton, flying down the track at crazy speeds, you have to make decisions in split seconds and the natural reaction is to panic. However, panicking is counterproductive as it causes the body to tense up and actually slows the sled down. Remaining cool, calm and collected is the best thing a Skeleton athlete can do.

With more time in the sport, I ultimately learned to trust my instincts, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all as this has become my personal ethos for achieving success in life.

By taking action instantly, embracing chaos and relentlessly pushing forward and relaxing and trusting our instincts, we can all apply these winning strategies for high performance in business and life. Who knew you could learn so much from the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport?

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