Her Excellency Mrs. Joyce Banda, President of the Republic of Malawi
Guest Speaker during the 2012 Global Forum on African Women in Leadership
21 September, 2012 in New York, USA.
Let me begin by congratulating you Madam Furo Giami and your team for organizing this important forum of women leaders in Africa. The 2012 Global Forum on African Women in Leadership whose main theme this year: is “the Rise of the African Woman: Enhancing and Sustaining Access to Leadership Positions” is in my view a timely forum as it provides us a platform to review the issues affecting us African Women. I am aware that since the start of the forum, you have discussed various pertinent issues affecting African women and girls – women’s economic empowerment, the girl child, women’s leadership, women and food security. I strongly believe it is important for us to have these conversations, bearing in mind that 2010 – 2020 was declared by the African Union as the decade for women. Hence for the decade to be meaningful, we have to ensure that women’s issues remain on the table, they remain the priority and they remain on the political agenda.
Let me also sincerely thank you madam for inviting me to present a lecture to you distinguished ladies and gentlemen. I want you to know that when I received the invitation, I knew I had no choice, I had to come. I had to come, because as a woman leader, I feel it is my moral obligation to ensure that I do not lose the connection with you my sisters from Africa. Your struggle is my struggle, therefore where issues of women and girls are being discussed it is natural for me to dedicate my time to see what we can do together to safeguard the rights of women and girls in Africa and globally. Madam, therefore thank you sincerely for the invitation.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I am greatly honored to be part of this Forum organized by the Centre for Economic and Leadership Development. I am pleased that the Centre aims at harnessing and enhancing the leadership potential of women in leadership positions in Africa as a whole. The vision of the Centre which is to empower women and vulnerable children in achieving their full potential is of great significance to Africa as a continent, because Africa’s development is interconnected with women’s empowerment. Women’s empowerment is an important factor in accelerating Africa’s growth. I also admire your focus of supporting children, especially girls in difficult situations, because I believe the starting point for women’s empowerment in Africa should be with girls’ empowerment. We cannot attain women’s empowerment if we ignore the roots which are girls’ education, protection and empowerment.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the topic I have been requested to lecture on “the Resilient Woman Leader: Growing Stronger in the Face of Life’s Storms” accurately describes the life journey of most women including myself. I will begin by defining the term “resilience” by quoting Rebecca Shambaugh’s simple definition which says “ resilience is the capacity to bounce back from misfortune, disruptive change, and failures”. Some Psychologists, however, give a more graphic definition of the term resilience. They say it is “that quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, the resilient individual finds a way to rise from the ashes”.
Madam Chairperson, given those descriptions on what resilience means, I would not be wrong to suggest that truly the upbringing of girls into women in Africa makes them develop this quality because in most African cultures, we women at a very young age are taught to be tough in spite of the difficulties that we go through. Madam, I am pleased to say, it is that African trait in me that helped me to survive the storms in my life.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I will begin sharing my experiences by recalling events in my private life that taught me that it is the choices we make in life that push us forward or backward. Situations around my life, forced me to make life changing choices much earlier as a young woman. After facing a difficult first marriage, at the age of 31 and with three small children I had to leave my marriage and start from a scratch to support myself and my children. Am sure most of you my African sisters and brothers know that it was not an easy choice to walk out of a marriage, especially in those years in the early 80s. But my situation left me with no choice I had to leave my marriage because I had found out that my home was no longer safe for me and my children.
When I made this decision it also became apparent to me that without economic empowerment, women’s ability to bounce back into life, was not be easy. Therefore as a single parent I decided to take incremental steps to economically empower myself with the belief that when I am economically empowered, I will better placed to protect my life and that of my children. Chairperson, luckily I saw that this route worked for me so much so that by 1985 I had established a tailoring business, Ndekani Enterprise which grew to become the largest industrial manufacturing company owned by a woman in Southern Africa. I witnessed events in my life change for the better. I rose from being a woman that did not know how to survive with three young children to an exporter of industrial garments, an employer of dozens of workers in my business.
Ladies and gentlemen, it was that personal experience that confirmed to me, that economic empowerment of women, is a getaway to their social and political empowerment. I discovered that for most women especially in Africa, one of the instruments of our liberation and resilience is the ability to be economically empowered. Therefore driven by this conviction, I decided to draw my mission in life, which is to economically and socially empower women and youth through entrepreneurship and education. I did this because I realized that there could be other women out there who cannot bounce back from their storms because they lack the necessary capacity. My success in achieving economic independence moved me to help other women achieve financial independence and break the cycles of abuse and poverty through the establishment of a non-profit organisation the National Business Women Association of Malawi in 1989. NABW is a grass-root organisation that distributes soft loans to small and medium scale business women.
Through NABW I witnessed the building of resilience of my fellow women. I heard stories of women whose lives had changed, just like mine had. I witnessed women who had regained themselves, women who told me they moved from a situation of not knowing where they next meal will come from, to women who placed food on the table purchased from their own income. I heard stories of women who had become providers for their homes, and in doing so gained respect from their husbands and their in-laws. In fact one woman came to tell me she bought shoes and a suit for her husband, and to her that purchase alone was a symbol of her new place within the home – a new place of respect – she too had become a provider and was an equal partner in decision making. That is what economic empowerment does to women it helps them to rise from their ashes.
Chairperson, I have belaboured to tell my personal story and the story from the National Association of Business Women because I want to make a point. The point is that many women in Africa need to be given the opportunities to have necessary instruments for them to become resilient, for them to face their storms. My personal experience and the experiences of thousands of women from NABW demonstrated to me that economic empowerment can be a useful vehicle through which women can liberate themselves, can survive situations and bounce back after a storm. I also realized that economic empowerment can in fact be a shield against a storm from occurring. Chairperson, I therefore wish to make a call, my call this afternoon is to challenge ourselves, our Governments and development partners to put in place programs that support women’s economic empowerment as one way of building their resilience. Women’s resilience may not come on its own, we have to facilitate it, and I believe that women’s access to income is an important aspect of women’s resilience.
Chairperson, having shared how my resilience grew in the face of early storms in my life, I now wish to share my recent experiences of storms I faced as a woman leader. I share my story firstly to illuminate the challenges that women in Africa face in these leadership positions, and secondly to hopefully encourage you my sisters that we should not give up, in spite of the challenges and obstacles that we may meet on our leadership journey, there will always be a way to surmount them.
Chairperson, my story is a long story, and it cannot be told within the time I have. But as some of you may be aware, in May 2009, Malawians made a historic decision they elected the country’s first female Vice President, and I was privileged to be the woman elected in this position. I assumed this office knowing that this was not just an honour to me, but an honour to all Malawian women. Unfortunately, no sooner had I settled in my office, than my troubles begun. I was embroiled in a succession controversy. As Vice President of the country, logically I was positioned to aspire for the Presidency when the term of the incumbent would come to an end. However, the controversy arose because there was another candidate being groomed – the President’s brother and on a matter of principle, I refused to endorse this candidate without following the due process they party should have taken.
As expected, this resulted in an irreconcilable position, and one thing led to another. Simply put I had a difficult time as Vice President. The government machinery went on propaganda attacking and humiliating me in public rallies, on the public radio and television. Some of my privileges as Vice President were withdrawn, I was incapacitated and isolated. And all this culminated into my expulsion from the party. What remained for me was the Constitutional Position of Vice President which they could not remove me from.
Chairperson, during those storms, which I have not elaborated in detail, my faith and my resilience were tested and I now wish to share with you briefly how I overcame some of the storms and grew stronger as a woman leader:
Firstly, even in the most difficult times, I did not give up. I stood for the principle, and for what I believed was right. I refused to endorse an inappropriate person as a successor of the President. For me the Constitution was very clear, and during the 2009 campaign, my President and I had agreed that I would succeed him. Therefore any departure from the credible path of succession was betrayal, not just to me, but also to women of Malawi. That is why even in the face of the most humiliating situations, I did not sell my soul, I held on. Chairperson, my message to you my sisters and brothers, is that even if you are the only person standing for the truth, and everyone else has run away, don’t give up. The truth will set you free, and one day history will judge you right. To me standing for the right principle was a one of the biggest pillars of my strength during my storm.
Secondly for me, my resilience during the stormy three years was rooted in my personal mission in life. As I have narrated earlier, due to my personal circumstances from my early life, I became an activist, to fight injustices and to liberate those that are oppressed. Therefore reflections on my personal mission kept me going through those difficult years. I knew that if I had given in to the injustices, I would be perpetuating and institutionalizing injustices to women. What bothered me most is that if I as a whole Vice President I allowed the injustices to go unchallenged, how then would I expect an ordinary woman to challenge the injustices perpetrated against her. I therefore saw my struggle not just as a personal struggle, but a struggle to liberate women and the oppressed from the hands of the oppressors. My conviction in my personal mission, helped me to live one day at a time, and even though it was hard and difficult, I knew that this was worth the sacrifice. Simply put, I did not want the story of the First Female Vice President of Malawi to be a story of a woman who gave in to the oppressors, who negotiated with the conspirators, a story of a woman who made way to strangers to bypass her in the succession path. I wanted it to be a story of courage, a story that represents the strength, integrity and aspirations of African Women. Chairperson, you know African women are strong, they are ambitious and they need to claim their space in leadership. It was therefore not right for me to distort that picture of the strong African Woman by apologising for being ambitious. We women of Africa need to remain on course to claim our spaces in leadership positions, we must continue to protect the image of the African Woman and secure the gains we have made in the movement over time. We should allow patriarchy to reverse our gains.
Thirdly, one of the things that made me strong and resilient was the ability to be relevant. As I mentioned earlier, I was a Vice President who had been stripped off all administrative positions. This however, did not deter me from continuing to do what I intend to achieve in life. I just sought alternative route to fulfill my mission and continue to be relevant. My opponets took away the government platform, but they couldnot take away what I had built in my thirty years of working in the civil society with the grassroots. In the past three difficult years, I still continued to do my charitable and development activities. I refused to be made invisible and irrelevant. In those three years of isolation, I managed to establish two other non-profit organizations, the Market Women Activities and Initiatives (MWAI) and the Youth Movement in Development (YOMODE). I turned a challenge into an opportunity and both organisations registered a total of nearly half a million beneficiaries.
Chairperson, my message to my sisters is that sometimes challenges are cast on us, to toughen us, to make us think out of the box, to make us discover new things we can do and to usher us into new responsibilities. As African women we should never give up on ourselves. Press on, do what will make you relevant, and especially if you are a politician like myself, continue to do things that people will remember you for, continue to reach out to people. You need create your relevance.
Fourthly, Chairperson one of my strategies for remaining resilient and growing stronger was making sure I kept the public sympathy with me. There were many times when I could have publicly confronted the oppressors, but I resisted this. I remained subtle in my resistance and calculated when it was necessary for me to publicly confront the oppressors. Being subtle was helpful to me, because the public sympathy remained with me and protected me. This strategy is particularly relevant to my sisters who want to venture in politics. My advice is pick our battles well, otherwise when you want to fight all the battles you will run out of steam before you get to the end. You need to preserve your energies for the battles worth fighting. Sometimes silence is the best weapon in the face of an aggressor. It worked for me, it made me stronger. Above all, it is also important to recognize that if the public sees that you can fight your own battles, they may begin to perceive that you are no longer worth their protection and they may walk away from you. Sparing your energies and keeping your support intact are enablers to your bouncing back.
Last but not least, my difficult times made me discover that help might not always lie where you expect it to come from, therefore it was important for me to broaden my allies. When my troubles begun it was expected that my immediate defense would come from fellow professional women and women in the civil society. However, that was not the case. I realized that my fellow professional women were in a dilemma they didn’t know what to do with me, and most of them were afraid to lose their government linked jobs if they sided with me. And for my sisters in the movement, Government played divide and rule and the movement was weakened that it could no longer be my voice. My support surprisingly came from the men it was Malawian men who took the lead to rebuke Government over my treatment. My second source of support came from the grassroots women and women from the church. While they had no platform for advocacy, they just embraced me in constant prayer. And thirdly my source of support came from the international networks. It was people like President Ellen Johnston Sirleaf, President Mary Robinson, Mrs Graca Machel, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Njoki Wainaina, Litha Ogana, and organizations like the African Women Development Fund (AWDF), FEMNET, IPPF, the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, Partners in Health, just to mention but a few that offered me the platform and protection. They strengthened my resilience. Chairperson, here my message is simple, as African women leaders, we must establish networks and maintain them as they are a great source of protection and support.
Madam Chairperson, I wish to conclude by quickly sharing a few lessons that I learnt from those storms, and I hope these can challenge us as we forge ahead to promote women’s leadership on the continent:
Finally, Madam Chairperson, it is reassuring to know that African women through numerous dialogues and networking at various governance levels from local to national, regional and international, have come to some consensus that politics has to be transformed through the active involvement of women. The rise of African women in leadership can only be sustained by greater involvement of capable women. I am therefore, greatly pleased that the Global Forum on African Women in Leadership is proactive and is tirelessly working on sustaining the current wave of women in leadership positions in Africa. Once again thank you for the honour of letting me address you this afternoon, I look forward to our continued partnership in realizing he dreams of African women’s empowerment. Be assured that in me, you have a partner and a champion.
I thank you for your attention.