An Interview with Joyce Banda, Former President of Malawi
Joyce Banda served as President of Malawi from 2012-2014 following the unexpected death of previous President Bingu wa Mutharika. She was Malawi’s first female vice-president and eventually became Malawi’s first female president. In 2014, Forbes magazine voted Banda the most powerful woman in Africa and the 40th most powerful woman in the world.
Prior to assuming office, she established the Joyce Banda Foundation, which seeks to empower Malawian women and children through education, health, and economic opportunities. Her foundation has improved the economic standing of over 400,000 women through business training and saving circles and also tends to 35 Orphan Care Centers, which feed approximately 1,500 children a day in Malawi.
A tumultuous re-election campaign in 2014 saw Banda lose to her opponent Peter Mutharika, the brother of former President Bingu wa Mutharika. Many attribute her election loss to the “Cashgate” scandal of 2013, a corruption scandal that implicated high-level governmental officials and triggered the dismissal of Banda’s entire executive cabinet. After attempting to nullify the election results, Banda left Malawi to focus on her foundation work and champion women’s rights abroad.
The Politic contacted President Banda to learn more about her current efforts to promote women’s rights, education, and economic empowerment, as well as to hear her perspective on how Malawi can best pursue development in the coming years.
The Politic: To begin, what issues have you focused on throughout your professional career? How did you first become involved in politics?
Joyce Banda: I’ve spent my whole life on the development platform working in rural areas to try to change the lives of women and girls. My mission in life is to assist women and youth in social and political empowerment through business and education. So from 1981, what I have done is to find ways to enable my fellow women through economic empowerment.
I started by forming an organization to assist fellow women as a result of the fact that I myself had spent 10 years in an abusive marriage. I realized that economic empowerment for women was key to social and political empowerment. I’ve spent my life before politics forming an organization that addresses issues affecting women and girls. [I founded] the National Association of Business Women in Malawi, which provided micro-financing to 15,000 women. Next, [I founded] the Young Women Leaders Network, which mobilized young women and served as a one-stop destination for the government to appoint young women into positions of leadership. Then, in 1997, I received the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger [from] the New York Hunger Project. I spent many years as the national advisor of its program in Malawi. My final project was the Joyce Banda Foundation [beginning in 2010].
The Joyce Banda Foundation has five pillars. First, income into the household, believing that if the household gets income through the woman, the children in that household shall go to school. The second pillar is girls’ education, believing that when girls go to school, they are less likely to marry early, give birth prematurely, and die giving birth. The third pillar is maternal health, specifically related to maternal mortality and HIV in Malawi. The fourth pillar is leadership. I believe that when women get into leadership and are supported to become leaders, they focus more on issues that affect women and girls.
Finally, the fifth pillar is human rights. This is the cross-cutting pillar into all the other four areas. The right of women to make their income and control it. The right of girls to go to school. The right of women to participate in leadership. I must mention that I have been fortunate in my life that all the four areas that I have championed resulted from personal experience. During my childhood, a very good friend of mine ended up dropping out of school because her family would not risk the six dollars needed to go back to school. At 14 years old, I made up my mind that I was going to spend my life assisting other girls [to complete their educations]. In 1984, I gave birth to my first-born child and almost died giving birth because I suffered postpartum hemorrhage. Maternal health became one of my pillars from that experience.
On the topic of maternal health, the Trump administration announced the expanded Mexico City Policy, which directly affects international healthcare providers. [This policy prevents non-governmental organizations from receiving most types of U.S. global health assistance if they “perform or actively promote abortion.”] Given that Malawi is one of the largest recipients of foreign aid, particularly from the United States, how do you think the expanded Mexico City Policy will impact development programs in Malawi, especially those involved in maternal and reproductive health?
I refuse to equate our development in Malawi to foreign aid. I believe truly that we can exit our dependence on foreign aid. We must look to ourselves, into our own country and our own resources. Without dwelling more on the U.S., I can say that even with limited resources, women [in Malawi] are not dying due to a lack of foreign aid, but because of the systems, the traditions, and the beliefs on the ground. Malawi has an 80% percent rural based population. As a result of that, they are very traditional, and some of their traditional beliefs impact maternal health. There are some foods that we cannot eat because we are told we cannot eat them; as a result pregnant women are unhealthy. Beliefs that you can’t talk to anybody else about pregnancy except your mother and mother-in-law mean that women are late going to the hospital if they are in labor. We also don’t have proper roads or ambulances to take these women to the clinic on time.
When I was in office, we tried to do with what we had. We introduced a program where we engaged these traditional leaders. Traditional leaders, who are mostly men, were seen for the first time on TV discussing ways of avoiding these unnecessary deaths, speaking to their subjects, telling them to deliver in the hospital, banning the delivery of babies by traditional bed-attendants, engaging the private sector to build holding shelters at the hospitals. We loosened the beliefs at the grassroots levels by convincing chiefs to appoint other women in the community. We educated men that they must get involved in the pregnancy of their wives. In almost 24 months, we were able to reduce maternal death from 675 per 100,000 to 460 per 100,000.
Other than foreign aid, there is so much that our country can do to tackle issues that negatively impact women and children. Our country officially has 2 billion barrels of oil, as well as gas, gold, rubies, etc. We have the fourth largest deposit of rare earth [metals]. All we need to do is focus on exploiting our natural resources for the good of the people. I think the path we should be taking in the developing world, particularly African countries, is not to say, “When are we going to get aid?” or “When are people going to give us money?”—because they are not going to be giving money forever—but rather to say, “What is it that we can do within what we have, with our natural resources?”
Given how much you’ve talked about self-empowerment within Malawi, not relying on foreign aid, where do you see the future of Malawi within the next 10-20 years? What are some of the areas that your foundation and the Malawian government can seek to improve? And finally, what issues, such as health problems, corruption, etc., will pose the biggest obstacles for the future of Malawi?
What I see for us moving towards 2030, [in order] to achieve the sustainable development goals, is [assuring] that the men and women who have become leaders in their countries don’t shy away from tackling the ills that bring us down. One of them being corruption. I said this because I know it’s not easy. It’s difficult because when you tackle [corruption], they fight you back. The temptation on the part of any leader is to preserve the status quo and to cover all that up. But our people can live a better life and our people on the continent of Africa deserve better, Malawi included.
Malawi has all these natural resources: fortunately for us, they have not yet been exploited. I have dreams where one day we shall have diamonds for cash, gold for cash, and rare earth [metals] for cash. A household gets $5,000 a year: the household is clearly informed that those $5,000 are for the education of the children in this household, for better health and food security. That will bring us to the next level of development like we’ve never imagined before. Malawi has tried some of these things. President Bingu wa Mutharika introduced an “input program” where poor people were able to buy subsidized inputs and [Malawi] was able to achieve food security in one year. We know that [food security and girls’ education] can be achieved in my nation, so we are not going to reinvent the wheel. Africa now has a group of leaders that are saying, “Enough is enough—we are not going to accept corruption anymore.” But it’s not easy, it’s hard and I know it because I have lived through it. There is a price to fighting corruption. At the end of the day, still fight because you set a precedent that will be followed by the other presidents to come. When we do that, we shall reserve whatever we have for the benefit of the people that we claim to serve.