‘May the real Joyce Banda stand up!’

Malawi President Joyce Banda is known for her relentless efforts to uplift the living standards of vulnerable groups through her foundation and other avenues.

She has for a long time been a strong advocate of gender equality and women empowerment. Anthony Kasunda sought the views of renowned gender activist and lawyer Seodi White on women’s expectations now that Banda is at the helm of government.

What was your first reaction when you heard that Joyce Banda had been sworn in as President of the Republic of Malawi?

Actually, that Easter weekend will go down in my memory as a major triumph of our democracy. When I first heard about the passing of our former president (May his soul rest in peace) on Thursday April 5 at about 2.30pm, I closed the office and advised colleagues to stay indoors as I [thought] Malawi was about to experience a difficult handover of power.

I went on Facebook and opened up my postings to the public (usually I close them for friends only) and went on to engage in an analysis of how power should be transferred and who was in control at that time (my opinion was that it was the Army) as a lot of people didn’t understand what was to happen next. 

I also posted on friends’ pages whom I knew were close to the President (then Vice) to encourage her to call for a Cabinet meeting as I knew at that time she was the only person who could call for such. It was an intense 72 hours; so, when she was finally sworn in, I swear, I saw God! Because I knew as many did that Malawi had just averted a coup; Malawi has done what many countries in Africa fail to do-peaceful transfer of power in an emergency.

I was very proud yet again to call myself a Malawian. Everyone wanted peace, everyone wanted life to go on. It was a collective choice to transfer power in this way. So, this was my feeling when the President ascended to the position she is in now.

Do you think the coming in of a woman as President will ease your work as a gender equality advocate?

I honestly don’t know. Malawi, at the moment, looks internationally progressive in that we have a female President. But make no mistake, Malawi is yet to choose a female President or to elect one. This hasn’t happened yet. The President ascended to her current position.

But do you think a female President will ease your work?

Let me explain this. I’m not convinced that a female politician automatically represents a gender responsive agenda. One thing that must be noted is that the former head of State Bingu wa Mutharika, despite having left an unfortunate and sad legacy of autocracy, left another legacy that I know Malawians are not ready to talk about and that is a positive legacy of women’s empowerment.

It was during Mutharika’s presidency that Malawi had more female representatives in diplomatic missions than any other time in the history of the country and, apart from that, during his time, the following female appointments were made:

Attorney General, ombudsman, law commissioner, Clerk of Parliament, Director of Public Prosecutions, chairperson of the Electoral Commission; female directors and heads of government departments, the highest number of female MPs (the majority of whom came from the DPP and whose campaign he specifically supported) and the President herself as Malawi’s first vice-president was handpicked by Mutharika through which channel she has risen to the Presidency; difficult as the road has been, but I believe these are the facts.

I’m outlining this so that the President is aware that the women empowerment legacy as spearheaded by the former head of State should not be reversed but should be strengthened and consolidated. We, therefore, strongly invite her to use her presidential prerogative to appoint more women into various positions particularly those that are traditionally regarded as male and challenge the corporate sector to do the same. So, she has big shoes to fill with regard to the gender agenda.

For example, two High Commissioners who have been recalled are female. She has not made female appointments to fill those positions. So far, it has been men.

The previous presidents of this country have had a fair share of criticism. Should Malawians treat JB differently just because she is a woman?

 Definitely not! We in the women’s movement have advocated that we should have equal responsibilities as our fellow men because we are of the view that we have same skills, capacity and that in some cases, we can do far much better than men. Further, holding back means that women are being degraded as this implies that a woman President cannot deal with tough issues. Criticism is part of the presidency. A President should be made of sterner stuff. She should understand that in a democracy, not everybody will love her and must live with that. So, no special treatment.

In your own opinion, what is your impression of JB’s leadership so far?

We are yet to see the real JB. She has been a ceremonial vice-president for three years which should have given her space to analyse and craft her agenda for running the country should she cross over in 2014.

But apart from forming a party, I’m not sure what policies are there that give Malawi a leap into the global space as well as taking us out of poverty.

Right now, there is a lot of fire-fighting; reversing Mutharika’s costly mistakes and that I understand she has to do. But may the real Joyce Banda stand up? What is this orange all about? Is it about self praise that our President usually engages in? Me: Joyce Banda this and that. 

Apart from the usual blabber, we hear about who visited her when she was castigated by the DPP. I think a President ought to rise above those and engage in serious business of crafting policies, implementing programmes rather than singing the same old tune that she was castigated: We all know that.

Further, I think her biggest mistake so far has been the attack on the Chief Justice and the Judiciary without substantiation and such serious allegation made to the foreign press. For me, that was an attack on the Judiciary which comprises one of the three legs upon which government stands.

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