Malawi is one of the most impoverished nations on the planet. It is experiencing what officials describe as a “population explosion” in a society with inadequate resources. As of 2018, Malawi is the third poorest country in the world with a GDP per capita of only $342, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Over 90,000 people in the landlocked African country live with HIV/AIDS, which accounts for one in 10 adults. HIV/AIDS is one of the main reasons why Malawian children become vulnerable or orphaned. The country is in dire need of advanced medical services and facilities and trained physicians, and there is only one doctor for every 50,000 individuals.
Climate change and global warming represent serious challenges for Malawians. According to the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the unbridled cutting down of trees — to be used for charcoal as a replacement for electricity — is contributing to climate change significantly. It is reported that most Malawian households suffer from frequent power blackouts lasting between three and six hours a day. Rapid deforestation and widespread soil erosion have made Malawi’s agriculture-based economy defenseless against the impacts of climate change.
Discrimination against women is rampant in Malawi. Young girls and women often do not have equal opportunities in education and employment as their male counterparts. However, this is not the only difficulty that the women of Malawi face. Gender-based violence and sexual harassment have plagued Malawian society. In May 2019, the government, the UN and the European Union announced a new multiyear program called the Spotlight Initiative, focused on “eliminating violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and harmful practices.”
Despite all the challenges Malawi is grappling with, the country in southeastern Africa is hopeful of a better future. This is thanks to the promising decline of its inflation rate; the gradual growth of GDP; reserves of uranium, tea, coffee and tobacco that constitute the backbone of its economy; and the resumption of support by financial donors.
Joyce Banda served as Malawi’s fourth president — and its first female leader — from 2012 to 2014. Prior to this, she was vice president and the minister of foreign affairs. Banda is the founder and leader of the People’s Party and a member of Club de Madrid. She is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and motivational speaker who was named Africa’s most powerful woman by Forbes in 2013 and 2014.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to former President Banda about the challenges and opportunities ahead for Malawi and the African nation’s prospects for development.
Kourosh Ziabari: Violence against women is rampant in Africa. Female genital mutilation is prevalent in 28 African countries, according to 28 Too Many, ranging from 5% in Uganda to over 90% in Somalia. Another form of violence against women in the continent is rape, especially as a “weapon of war” in countries with unstable political climates. African societies tend to treat families with sons more favorably than families with daughters. Can you give us a picture of the situation in Malawi? As a female leader, how do you think violence and discrimination against African women can be tackled?
Joyce Banda: Indeed, female genital mutilation is happening in 26 countries. While FGM doesn’t exist in Malawi, we have our forms of harmful traditions that promote violence against girls. One was highly publicized on the BBC when Eric Niva was caught having sex with girls, convincing the community that he was recruiting them to “cleanse” them. In reality, he was a rapist who was infecting girls with disease.
To tackle violence against African women, we should focus on and promote the efforts African women are making to get rid of harmful traditions across the continent. There are many champions pushing to fix our problems and getting a lot done.
As a female leader, my view is that we need to mobilize African women leaders and champions, as well as our male allies, who will fight for the protection of women and girls. The African Women Leaders Network, an initiative of the African Union and UN Women, of which I serve as a founding member and steering committee member, is one example of an initiative working to mobilize leaders.
Ziabari: In 2017, reports from Malawi’s Ministry of Gender revealed that 53% of married women face domestic violence at the hands of their husbands. The national police spokesman also confirmed that cases of domestic violence are reported to law enforcement across the country on a daily basis. Is there any legislation against domestic violence in Malawi? Do you see any improvement in the situation for women in your country?
Banda: In terms of legislation in Malawi, there is a law that protects women against property grabbing and allows them rights to the land they own, which often happens when their husband dies and family members try to claim the land for themselves. When I was the gender minister in 2006, I championed the passing of the domestic violence bill through our parliament. Through that bill, the women of Malawi have a tool at their disposal to fight domestic violence, even allowing them to evict their abusive husbands. Furthermore, two years ago, Malawi passed a law that prohibits girls from getting married before age 18.
However, even though we have legislation, the challenge we have as a nation is the political will to help Malawian women to take advantage of the tools at their disposal. Yes, there are laws to protect girls from early marriage, but if the family cannot afford to send her to secondary schools, marriage is one of the only options for her as the family may have difficulty affording to house and feed her. Culture, tradition and poverty play a large role, thus it is critical to not only pass laws but also to domesticate them, police their implementation and focus on poverty reduction.
Ziabari: USAID data from 2016 shows that 16.7% percent of children under 18 in Malawi are orphans and vulnerable children, or OVC. Why are there so many unprotected children in Malawi? Do you think the government has been successful in offering educational, social and moral support to these children?
Banda: In Malawi, one of the main causes of children becoming orphaned or vulnerable is AIDS. But even before AIDS, the challenge is that there were so many kids without access to early childhood education. That being the case, when they lost parents, their situation got worse.
What research shows is the kids who get access to early childhood development [ECD] do better later on. I am a patron of Think Equal, a UK-based organization that seeks to fight against violence against women by tackling the root issues, such as ensuring respect between boys and girls. They recruit schools across the world to provide ECD and rights education to boys and girls from age 3. When countries can’t provide adequate ECD, they can’t benefit from this. It will take political will from government to invest in ECD.
Civil society plays a big role in bringing solutions for the orphans and vulnerable children problem. In my case, the Joyce Banda Foundation International [JBFI], founded in 1997, runs 30 orphan care centers across Malawi for 50,000 orphans, providing early childhood education using the Montessori method. Furthermore, 47% of Malawians are stunted, so we know that ECD must be coupled with a focus on nutrition. At JBFI, we are able to provide a nutritious meal at our centers every day thanks to a partnership we have built with Nu Skin.
Ziabari: As minister for gender and community services, you worked hard to design the National Platform for Action on Orphans and Vulnerable Children and also the Zero Tolerance Campaign Against Child Abuse. What have the outcomes and achievements of your initiatives been?
Banda: These initiatives were active almost 15 years ago, and at that point, Malawi was on the tier two watchlist for human trafficking. When I was alerted of this, I decided to analyze the whole sector of vulnerable girls and children and take steps to fight abuses to children in my country. Child trafficking takes many forms, and to address them, we sat down and drew the plan of action.
As part of the campaign, I set up children’s corners at grassroots with UNICEF, deploying two trained child protection agents equipped with bicycles in 193 constituencies. They reported abusers to police and brought children together. Awareness that was created by this campaign truly paved the way to passing the 2006 Domestic Violence bill, as we had already done our due diligence on OVCs and were then able to focus on the entire household.
Ziabari: Let’s move away from women and children issues. Data from the CIA shows that Malawi is in the top 10 countries with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS. How has the government been dealing with this issue? Is the population sufficiently educated about HIV treatment and prevention?
Banda: The Global AIDS Commission invested a lot in civic education in Malawi and we had made a tremendous improvement. We made tremendous improvement through PEPFAR — about half a million Malawians got on treatment. Additionally, the Option B initiative was successful, where for the first time we tested pregnant women and started treatment right away so their babies weren’t born infected.
Ziabari: Malawi is one of the top 10 major exporters of tobacco in the world and, arguably, the most tobacco-dependent nation. There are credible reports that the international demand for tobacco is declining. Does the country have plans to diversify its economy at a time where agriculture accounts for about one-third of GDP and tobacco accounts for half of its export revenues?
Banda: Crop diversification program started when I was head of state, identifying legumes as an area to focus on for export potential. The first crop was 2012-13. Malawi is certainly looking to diversify crops but also looking at mining as another alternative to growing tobacco.
Malawi has the fourth largest deposits of rare earth to make TV screens, gas, 2 billion barrels of oil, rubies, gold, titanium, bauxite and more. As a result of the discovery of all these resources, there is illegal mining, so political will is needed to protect Malawi’s wealth.
Ziabari: Poverty in Malawi has been at critical levels for many years. There are about 12 million Malawians who live below the international poverty line. While in office, were you able to work toward improving the situation? What’s your take on the performance of your successors in addressing poverty in the country?
Banda: My strategy during office was four-pronged for poverty reduction: food production, education, health and family planning for the rural poor. One of the biggest tragedies in African politics is that the one who takes over rarely takes over the old projects and initiatives, preferring to start over again. In my case, I was focusing on rural people, paying attention to households at the grassroots because 85% of Malawians are rural-based, and in that group is where they are living in abject poverty. The good news is we know why these people are poor and we know what to do, so all we need is good leadership to focus on communities and uplift our people.
I discovered that by using local and traditional leadership, the custodians of tradition and culture, government can be more effective in reducing poverty, improving health outcomes and eliminating harmful traditions. By working alongside chiefs, I was able to reduce maternal deaths from 675 to 400 out of 100,000 births, a reduction of 30%. Using that philosophy, we were able to build model villages to demonstrate that with their own hands and using builders from their communities, they can build better homes. When people get opportunities to grow enough food to eat, sell and export, when they are assisted with better health and education, and when families can generate income through the woman, countries become economically empowered.
Furthermore, to reduce poverty, we must also look at population growth and the alarming rate in Malawi. Because our population growth is at 3.3% annually, there is no way our poverty will be reduced significantly because of the number of children. Chicken and egg- poor families view children as wealth, so until that changes, children will continue to be born.
Ziabari: High population growth, rapid deforestation and widespread soil erosion have made Malawi and its agriculture-oriented economy highly vulnerable to climate change and its negative consequences. Earlier this year, floods in Malawi killed dozens, displaced some 200,000 people and half of the country’s 28 districts were affected. What has the government done to combat climate change? Did you particularly deal with this issue in your administration?
Banda: The more people we have, the more our land is cleared for living, including cutting down trees for firewood to produce energy. Solutions to that is for rural electrification with solar power, so that when people begin to use it they will reduce cutting trees. In my administration, I launched the energy-saving stove with Mary Robinson from Ireland, amongst other works to promote safe population growth and good governance.
But the population growth is also significant and poverty exacerbates climate change. Government must look at all these challenges: population growth, good governance and providing alternative energy to stop the population from cutting down trees and polluting the environment.
Ziabari: There have been significant democratic movements and transformations across Africa in the recent decade. Despotic rulers in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and, most recently, Sudan were removed from power. What do these developments indicate? Why is Africa undergoing these rapid shifts?
Banda: If I have to be candid, most of these governments that changed during the Arab Spring are being influenced by the West. So, I don’t want to pretend they are homegrown. Half the time, the interference is done by the West, and we end up with cases like Libya. While the West portrayed Muammar Gaddafi as a villain, Africans are still mourning him. People all over the world need to let Africa come up with its own model of democracy — that is what will work. Outside forces pushing for change leave us with conflict and catastrophic results that we are then forced to fix ourselves.
Ziabari: What is your vision for the future of Malawi? Do you think the country will reduce its dependence on foreign assistance and be able to overcome the economic, social, political and developmental challenges it currently faces?
Banda: Malawi must stop being dependent on aid, and this can be easily done. In 2006, the director of public prosecution, Fahd Assan, who later served as minister of justice in my administration, informed me that 30% of Malawi’s resources are wasted through theft and corruption. What I said when I became president was that it is a shame and cannot be accepted, especially since Malawi depends on foreign aid for 40% of its budgetary requirements. If we saved the 30% wasted through corruption, Malawi would only need to look for 10%.
In a country where natural resources are intact, all we need is to get organized and carefully implement the mining code, which was done by my government. If we start responsibly extracting our mineral resources, controlling population growth, empowering communities to transform their own lives and making sure all that tamper with our resources are stopped, Malawi can be aid independent in 10 years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.