x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New Malawi president is a women's champion

Joyce Banda has become the first female head of state in southern Africa after taking over as Malawi's president following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika.

Joyce Banda makes her inaugural speech.
Joyce Banda makes her inaugural speech.

A champion of women's rights, Joyce Banda has become the first female head of state in southern Africa after taking over as Malawi's president following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika.

As vice president, the mother of three assumed the top job in the landlocked and impoverished country on Saturday under the terms of the constitution.

The 61-year-old cuts a maternal figure that presents a stark contrast to her professorial predecessor, who styled himself the "Economist in chief".

A winner of international awards for her work as a supporter of women's rights, Ms Banda was last year named by Forbes Magazine as Africa's third most powerful female politician after the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Nigerian minister of finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

She will hope her influence stands her in good stead as she looks to rebuild ties with Malawi's main foreign donors - including Britain and the United States - who had squabbled with and been alienated by Mr Mutharika.

Until now the policeman's daughter has spent a lot of her time campaigning on behalf of poor rural African women.

She has said her ambition was to set women on the world's least- developed continent free from the cycle of poverty and abuse that has haunted them for centuries.

In an interview late last year, she cited the case of a childhood friend in her ancestral village as one reason she has kept on campaigning. She said her friend, much brighter than herself, was forced to leave high school after just one term because her family couldn't afford the $12 (Dh44) needed for the school fees.

"I went on to go to college and I became the vice president of Malawi. She is still where she was 30 years ago," Ms Banda said in the interview with the GlobalPost. "The vicious cycle of poverty kept her there and took away her options. I made up my mind … whatever would happen in my life, I would try to send girls to schools."

This personal pledge was behind Ms Banda's decision to complete a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Early Childhood Education from Columbus University in the US. Setting up a garment manufacturing business and later a bakery, she said she used the proceeds to send underprivileged girls to school.

She is married to Richard Banda, a former chief justice of Malawi and Swaziland.