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“I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart.”
― William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

When the outside world hears news about Malawi, reports of an HIV/Aids epidemic, a potential war with Tanzania concerning the borders of a major lake, economic hardship, drought and the suppression of women’s rights may paint a bleak picture.

The recent election of pro women’s rights activist Joyce Banda as president may change the headline landscape to a more desirable one.

As reported April 10, 2012 by Raphael Tenthani of the BBC, Joyce Banda, who has made history becoming Malawi’s first female president and only the second woman to lead a country in Africa, has a track record of fighting for women’s rights.

She took power after the death of 78-year-old President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in office after heading up the southern Africa country since 2004.

Mr. Mutharika’s decision to appoint her as his running mate for the 2009 elections surprised many in Malawi’s mainly conservative, male-dominated society – which had never before had a female vice-president.

Mrs. Banda’s presidential challenges are huge: Aside from handling political divisions and possible opposition from Mr. Mutharika’s allies, she has to address Malawi’s serious economic difficulties. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 75% of the population living on less than $1 (60p) a day.

Ms. Banda started a women’s empowerment program, traveling throughout the country to promote the National Business Women Association, a campaign that made her one of Malawi’s most visible champions of gender equality. Ms. Banda remains a role model to many women in Malawi for her fight for her gender in a male-dominated society. She later established the Joyce Banda Foundation to advance education for girls explains aljazeera.com/news/Africa.

The nyasatimes.com related Former US president Bill Clinton, on a two-day visit to Malawi alongside daughter Chelsea, has lent his weight on the administration of the southern African country’s first female president Joyce Banda, saying she is running a “a very serious government”.

Mr. Clinton pledged his foundation would continue and enhance all projects in Malawi to complement efforts by the Joyce Banda administration to improving people’s livelihoods.

Speaking to reporters in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, the 42nd US president noted that the Joyce Banda government “is trying to do the right things.”

Specific objectives are to increase the productivity of soybeans, beans, groundnuts and pigeon peas through better soil and crop management using seed of improved varieties; increase household utilization of selected legume crops; link farmers in the community to contract commodity buyers and warehouse receipts programs; and increase export marketing of value-added products from selected legumes.

Wikipedia reports at a June 2012 press conference in Malawi, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said that Banda had “swiftly moved to tackle many pressing human rights concerns” and praised “her strong commitment to advancing human rights and the welfare of the people of Malawi.” Observing that “Malawi has a very progressive constitution with strong human rights provisions, and a good set of laws and institutions in place to promote and protect human rights.”

While human rights issues are extremely important, President Banda places women’s rights at the center of her new presidency. As quoted in theguardian.com, “You ask how I feel to be the first female president in southern Africa?” she said in an interview. “It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I feel that I’m carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to succeed, they all must rally around.”

The 61-year-old first rose to prominence as a champion of female empowerment, founding organizations including a micro financing network for thousands of women in rural areas. She says her own experiences of marriage have driven her crusade.

“I got married at 22 and remained in an abusive marriage for 10 years,” she told the Guardian during a visit to Pretoria, South Africa. “I made up my mind that that was never going to happen to me again. I made a brave step to walk out in a society when you didn’t walk out of an abusive marriage. It was mental and physical abuse.”

On April 12, 2013, the Nyasa Times related, Malawi President Joyce Banda assured all women in the country that she will continue championing women empowerment and right in the country, disclosing that she has ascended the Domestic Violence Bill in into law.

She asked the ministry involved to make sure that Malawians understand the contents of the law. Ms. Banda therefore called for a holistic approach towards efforts and programs that are designed to uplift the status of women in the country.

Commemorated under the theme “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end Violence against women” Banda said it is only by taking a holistic approach that the recent gains in mitigating violence against women can be maximized.

The Women News Network (WNN) adds, to improve HIV/AIDS healthcare in the region, President Banda’s government has pledged to roll-out distribution of a new anti-retro viral (ARV) drug – tenofovir disoproxil fumarate – recommended by the World Health Organization as a therapy that may prevent the onset of HIV.

Worldwide the virus that causes HIV/AIDS affects more women than men. Young women are 1.6 times more likely to carry HIV/AIDS than young men, says a joint report by UNAIDS, UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund and UNIFEM, which is now part of the larger UN agency called UN Women.

In the search for progress in Malawi women are now organizing to claim their rights to better health and a better life. Global advocates JASS -Just Associates along with local partners inside Malawi, including the MANERELA+ – Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living With and Affected by HIV/AIDS and community-based organization WOFAD – Women for Fair Development are working together to build a strategy to “prioritize women’s needs.”

The group asafeworldforwomen.org contributes information regarding the on-going struggle of property rights.

While Malawi’s Constitution states that women are entitled to “a fair disposition of property that is held jointly with a husband” when a marriage ends, the current law considers property to be held “jointly” only if they had made direct financial contributions to said property.

The Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust (WLSA – Malawi) has taken the government to the Constitutional Court where they are challenging the current Marital Property Law, arguing that it discriminates against women.

There is a strong international trend regarding the equal division of a married couple’s joint estate.

In numerous jurisdictions, including Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States, a marital-property approach reflecting an equalization of marital assets upon marriage dissolution has been implemented in recognition of women’s non-economic and indirect contributions to marital property, according to WLSA – Malawi.

WLSA-Malawi is requesting the Constitutional Court to declare section 17 of the Married Women Property Act invalid, or as an alternative, to declare that section 17 be interpreted in a manner that recognizes women’s contributions to marital property and guarantees that women receive half of the marital assets upon the end of a marriage.

President Joyce Banda is a beacon of hope in an emerging country The US Department of State indicates they share views on the necessity of economic and political stability in southern Africa.Through an assessment of its own national interests and foreign policy objectives, Malawi advocates peaceful solutions to the region’s problems through negotiation. The country works to achieve these objectives in a variety of regional and international forums.

The United States and Malawi engage in military-to-military programs. Malawi was the first southern African nation to receive peacekeeping training under the U.S.-sponsored African Crisis Response Force Initiative and has joined its successor, the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program.

President Joyce Banda has all the reasons to smile with a new UNICEF report that shows that Malawi is one of the few low income countries that has made significant strides in reducing under-five death rates by two-thirds or more since 1990.

Please keep watching the headlines during the leadership of Ms. Banda. There is confidence the headlines of the past will be replaced with inspiring ones chronicling a better life for all of the citizens of Malawi as men and women move closer to equality.

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www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa, aljazeera.com/news/africa, nyasatimes.com/2013/07/31/clinton-endorses-malawis-joyce-banda, Wikipedia, www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/29/malawi-president-joyce-banda-women-rights, http://www.voanews.com/content/new-president-faces -obstacles-to-improving-womens-rights-in-malawi, actionaidusa.org/malawi/what-we-do/womens-rights, awid.org/News-Analysis/Issues-and-Analysis/Africa-Malawi-s-women-stand-up-for-healthcare-rights-under-HIV-AIDS, asafeworldforwomen.org/womens-rights/wr-africa/malawi/518-malawi-fighting-for-property-rights.html, www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/7231.htm, photos courtesy Wikimedia