In an interview with an Aljazeera news anchor, the newly sworn-in Republic of Malawi President, Joyce Banda, said, "My election (in 2009) as the vice president and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberian president) shows that Africans have grown in democracy [and] they have confidence in both women and men in leading them. Africans have decided that the time is now that women can also participate in leadership."
Banda has become the first female president in the Southern Africa region after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika and the second in Africa after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. The former deputy president replaces (and had clashed badly) with her predecessor who had vowed never to relinquish power before experiencing a heart attack this month.
Her appointment brings a wave of hope to Malawi and is one way in which the region is moving towards the attainment of 50/50 representation of women and men in politics and decision making by 2015. This is in line with the provisions of the 2008 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development.
As a journalist and a gender activist, I have known President Banda as a politician who has the welfare of people at heart. She has always emphasised the need for deliberate policies to challenge the patriarchal values still embedded in Malawi and in Southern Africa.
In 2011, Forbes Magazine recognised Banda as the third most powerful female politician in Africa after Johnson-Sirleaf and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweal, Nigeria's Minister of Finance.
Banda has worked tirelessly to empower women economically in Malawi. Upon her divorce from an abusive marriage in the 80s, Banda founded the National Association of Business Women (NABW) in 1990, a financial lending institution that aims to economically empower rural women. I personally benefited from NABW as my mother borrowed her first small business loan from the association in the mid-90s.
She is also behind the initiatives such as Young Women Leaders Network and Malawi Hunger Project, both of which have benefited millions of Malawians. In 1997, Hunger Project, a United States-based NGO awarded Banda the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, alongside Joaquim Chissano, former Mozambican president. She used the prize money to fund the establishment of the Joyce Banda Foundation for Children, a charitable foundation that assists vulnerable children and orphans through education in Malawi.
President Banda has steered numerous women's rights initiatives in Malawi. As Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services, Banda fought for the Domestic Violence Bill be passed into law. Parliament enacted the law, after it had previously failed to for seven years. I am therefore confident that Banda will use her position to influence gender aware policies and measures that will enable women and girls to enjoy their rights.
Malawi is still battling with cultural practices, policies and constitutional and customary laws that contribute to the violation of women's and girl's rights. If not amended, these conflicting laws will impact on the attainment of the 2015 targets of the SADC Gender Protocol.
Banda's first major assignment will be in July this year, when African Union (AU) delegates gather in Malawi for the African Union summit and election of the new chair, following the last polls that ended in a deadlock. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa's Home Affairs Minister will stand again for AU commission chair after stopping current chair, Jean Ping, to a second term of office in the previous elections. Banda will therefore have to assert her power and ensure that African leaders support the appointment of Dlamini-Zuma.
In addition, the recognisable work being done by Banda, Sirleaf - the Nobel laureate - and Okonjo-Iweal (currently vying for World Bank's presidency), demonstrates that leadership has nothing to do with sex but a person's ability to deliver. This brings in a new definition of politics, a space that has largely been dominated by men.
The work being done by women leaders proves that putting women in leadership positions is not only democratically correct, but it is the right thing to do. Women have shown that they are capable of delivering positive results in difficult circumstances, something that points to the fact that they can do much better if given full support.
Banda has to now prove to the region that the time for female leaders in Africa is now. She can create a specific niche on inclusive governance not only in Malawi but the whole of Africa. Her elevation to power is therefore not just her story in the making, but the emancipation of women in Malawi and Southern Africa.
I hope that neighbouring countries in the region and Africa as a whole will begin to entrust power in the hands of women. Political parties should start fielding women in winning constituencies. Within political parties, women should be voted into top jobs which would lead to election for top government posts.
Banda should be an inspiration to many women who are vying for elections. There is no doubt that the face of politics in Africa is changing for the better. While the women's movement is advocating for 50/50 representation by 2015, the time for female leaders in Southern Africa is now!
- Daud Kayisi, a Malawian, is the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Programme Officer at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news. This article is republished here with the permission of Gender Links.