President Joyce Banda at GW: A Conversation on Women’s Empowerment in Africa

The George Washington University community had the opportunity this past weekend to hear from former President of Malawi Joyce Banda, who, as the first female president of Malawi and only the second female head of state on the African continent, presented her life story as a case study for the profit all of society accrues from empowering women through education and economic independence. A powerhouse in business, women and children’s advocacy, international affairs, and African leadership, Banda offered a pragmatic and optimistic vision of a feminist African future where women must work alongside men to achieve gender equality through five pillars enshrined in her eponymously-named Joyce Banda Foundation.

At the core of her argument, Banda calls for a shifting of focus from the supply side of women’s empowerment to the demand side. The primary reason girls do not go to school is not necessarily a lack of educational opportunities outside the home, according to Banda, but a lack of income inside the household to access these opportunities. Limited financial resources parents do have filter through ingrained culture traditions that give preference to male children; Banda, rather than attempt to overturn deeply-entrenched customs, proposes circumventing them by increasing household income so parents do not have to choose between their male and female children. Banda realizes that this is not sufficient, and describes research she is conducting which explores how to create the desire for female children to go to school and counter “harmful tradition” in the home that impedes female children. Still, an increase in household income is key.

Besides the inherent value in and of itself, education is also crucial for keeping young women from starting families early. It not only offers women opportunities for professional advancement – and, thus, economic empowerment – but also a healthier alternative devoid of the risks that come with getting pregnant and giving birth, which are exacerbated when women are both younger and without financial resources to access better care. For women who do become pregnant, Banda is seeking basic improvement in access to and quality of reproductive and maternal healthcare. Based on her personal observations of the Malawi healthcare system, this need not be a vast overhaul, for very small changes can mean the difference between life and death. She recalled the postpartum hemorrhage she suffered after giving birth to her fourth child; if her husband had not had the connections to summon one of the three gynecologists in Malawi, Banda may have died. Stating the obvious yet painful truth, Banda says “it is not just that women should die giving life,” especially when such deaths are so preventable.

These changes will come more quickly and easily with an increase in female representation in government, according to Banda. When more women are in office, the government tends to put a greater focus on women and children’s issues. Banda is confident that women are better leaders than men because they “do things differently,” and are more willing to enact social programs and fight corruption. This realization is more pressing to Banda now that women’s leadership is under attack internationally, especially following the recent impeachments of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. She cited the different approaches to governing she undertook as President, such as bringing the political opposition and civil society groups into all-inclusive discussions. Banda’s philosophy provides that to effect change, we must “work alongside each other and not just talk to ourselves,” because “when you work together, you achieve even more.” This ties into her final cross-cutting pillar of human rights, which are essential to creating a community that is just, fair, accountable, and inclusive.

Yet, Banda still emphasizes that it all goes back to microeconomics. Underlying Banda’s five pillars of social change is the main tenet that economic empowerment is the key to social and political empowerment. Through promoting educational equity and the financial independence that follows, Banda hopes to create opportunity for women to make their own choices. Such a shift will require political will within the country, as well as what she calls “smart partnerships” with outside organizations.

Throughout her time as the Malawian Minister of Gender, Children, and Community Development, the Vice President, the President, and now a private citizen, Banda has put up impressive numbers in her fight to end the “vicious cycle” that leaves women at a disadvantage. Her work earned a place on Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women in 2014 (she was named the most powerful woman Africa) and she shows no signs of stopping. Her presentation to the GW community was compelling and passionate, if not idealistic, but if her record is any indication, perhaps that is what is needed to enact genuine, long-lasting solutions to the problem of gender inequality in Malawi and beyond.

Rebecca Galanti

Author: Rebecca Galanti

Rebecca is a junior from Atlanta, Georgia, double-majoring in History and International Affairs with an International Politics concentration. Passionate about European politics and transatlantic diplomacy, she is particularly interested in the European Union and the development of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. On campus, Rebecca is an active member of the Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority. She is currently studying abroad in England at the University of Cambridge.