In her first order of business since being inaugurated as Malawi’s new president on Saturday, Joyce Banda fired the country’s top policeman. No reason was given for the firing, but the BBC reports that the police chief, Peter Mukhito, was in charge last year during anti-government protests over the worsening economy. Mukhito had personally questioned a University of Malawi lecturer over comparisons the latter had made between the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the fuel crisis in Malawi. The university was later closed. Then last July, police shot dead 19 protesters. Banda’s decisiveness does not surprise long term observers of Malawian politics and her appointment carries wider significance beyond the Southern African country.
For Malawians, it means a “triumph for democracy” in that the proper succession has occurred peacefully and smoothly. Given the rumors and some public statements after the sudden death of Banda’s predecesor, Bingu wa Mutharika, this is especially welcome news. So much for the Afro-pessimists. Senegal in March, Malawi in April. The Malian coup lasted only a few days. Who knows what May will bring?
Joyce Banda was the first woman Vice-President of Malawi. She is now the first woman President of Malawi and the first woman President in Southern Africa.
Banda has been a lifelong champion of women’s rights. She has spent decades organizing rural women, in Malawi and beyond. She has pushed and pulled women, and pushed and pulled with women, to demand equal access to education, to jobs, to land, to health services, to opportunities, to power. She has started women’s organizations and actively supported women’s movements.
In 2004, Banda entered government as Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services. She focused, both in legislative and delivery terms, on addressing domestic violence. She then moved on to become Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006 and Vice-President in 2009.
In recent years, as the regime of Mutharika became increasingly repressive and autocratic, Banda remained an independent voice for women and for others who suffered systemic and structural disenfranchisement, in good times and in bad. When Banda was kicked out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, she formed her own, the People’s Party, and stayed in office.
And there she has been. Speaking out for women when they were attacked by vendors in Lilongwe and Blantyre earlier this year. Speaking out for rural women constantly. Speaking out for more inclusive and democratic processes at all levels of state.
Joyce Banda has spent her life paying attention, learning, engaging, organizing, and effecting positive change. In particular, she watched and learned the difficulties and inequities of rural women’s and girls’ lives.
As a child, she learned that inequality intensifies with rural girls’ exclusions from school, and that the ways of those exclusions are numerous, entwined, complex, and structural.
At 21, Banda married and gave birth to three children. Her husband was abusive; the marriage was corrosive. Banda took her three children, left, and then got a divorce. For the next forty years, she has worked to end domestic violence and transform women’s positions in the world and at home.
When Banda gave birth to her fourth child, she suffered from post partum hemorrhaging and almost died. She realized she owed her life to easy access to trained medical care. From there, she began organizing and working for better access, especially among rural women, to reproductive health care and health care generally.