Malawi has a female president, but women still play a subservient role in the home, have limited access to education, and suffer violence and ill health. Four mothers describe their lives, hopes and role models
International attention turned to Malawi in April 2012 when President Joyce Banda came to power. Only the second woman head of state in Africa, she was named last year by Forbes as the most powerful woman on the continent.
Banda took charge after the death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, at what was economically a very difficult time. After the IMF encouraged her to devalue the kwacha, in 2012, the country experienced widespread food and fuel shortages. Recent events have made her term no easier. The attempted assassination of the government budget director, last September, led to a corruption scandal, dubbed cashgate, that saw Banda sack her entire cabinet, and the EU, UK and Norway withdraw funding.
Her leadership could come to an end in May with the presidential election, a highly contested poll that will coincide with Malawi’s 20th anniversary as a multiparty democracy.
Although her success in most areas hasn’t been fully evaluated, she has been commended internationally for her efforts to improve women’s rights. Working for gender equality is also a priority of Irish Aid, the Government’s overseas development programme, and Malawi is one of its priority countries.
There is a lot of room for improvement. Malawi is 124th in the world for gender inequality, according to the UN. Women make up 22.3 per cent of seats in the Malawian parliament, and only 10.4 per cent of women have a secondary education, half the rate for men.
January Mvula, director of the Sustainable Rural Community Development Organisation, says Malawian women are physically strong. “African women carry a baby on their head, one load on their back, and others in each of their arms.” But when your measurement extends beyond the physical, the empowerment of women in Malawi is still in the early stages. “We are from a background where women are often disregarded.”
Issues such as gender-based violence are widespread. Early marriages and pregnancies prevent women completing their education. One in seven Malawian women is infected with HIV or Aids…