In the village I had a very good friend. Her name is Chrissie Zamaere. Chrissie went to the village school and I went to the town school. Every Friday she would meet me by the roadside, waiting to hear about town life. And I would be excited to hear from her all the news of the village. She would teach me all about village life, from collecting wild fruits to getting crabs from the river.
Chrissie was the brightest in the village school – brighter than I. We were both selected to go to the best secondary girls’ school in Malawi. Chrissie went one term, but she couldn’t return – her school fees cost $6, and her parents couldn’t raise the money. My parents could, and I went on and finished my schooling, and today I am the president of Malawi. Chrissie went back to the village, got married early, ended up with half a dozen children or more, and she is still there, locked in poverty – and it makes me angry. It has made me angry all these years. As a young woman, I remember saying, “What can I do?” Today I keep Chrissie in mind each day as I work on behalf of women and girls.
By the time I was twenty-one, I was in an abusive marriage. After ten years, I decided that I had to get out. Remember, I was an African woman in an African situation – you didn’t just walk out. Nothing was considered too much pain to endure. But I made my decision, I packed my bags, and with my three children I walked out.
I remarried later, this time to a fine man. Given my experience in my previous marriage, I realized that economic empowerment was crucial to women, and I started my own business. Gradually, I built a business that employed 100 people. I was empowered on many levels – in society, and in my family. I had a say about many things, including how many children I wanted to have.
Around this time I started to travel and interact with women’s organizations. With five other women I started a national organization supporting women – the National Association of Business Women (NABW). NABW grew to 50,000 women in two years – a revolutionary organization that grew to be the largest rural network of women in Malawi, all driven by the idea that there is no way women can succeed and participate if we are not empowered economically.
As I traveled across the country, going from village to village, I would meet women and girls who were stuck. Their brothers weren’t around – they were in school. Their husbands weren’t around – they were in town, working as doctors, teachers. The women had no say over how many children they had, and they had no power at all in the community. And they were hopeless. They told me to leave them alone, shaking their heads at me: “What do you mean we can change our situation here? Impossible.”
And eventually, these women began to understand. I can tell you thousands of stories of how women have come to me to say thank you, to say, “I am empowered.”
NABW was an opportunity to reach out to women with reproductive health services. With support from United Nations Population Fund, we could use the existing women’s groups as entry points for the provision of family planning devices, information, and motivation. Women began to have a say in their families because they were economically empowered, and eventually the women started negotiating with their husbands about family planning. The men softened up, they appreciated the contribution the women were making to the household, they appreciated the need for the women to have more time to engage in their businesses, and negotiating for family planning became much easier, and NABW supported the provision of family planning services to meet the demand.
Apart from the NABW experience, my passion for work in maternal health comes from a personal experience. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I developed high blood pressure. After the baby was born, I suffered a post-partum hemorrhage, and I almost died. The only reason why I am still alive to tell my story is that I could afford skilled care. Malawi has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Africa, and after what I went through, I became driven to work on maternal health.
I use any opportunity I can to support the cause for women and the underprivileged. With the Joyce Banda Foundation we provide education for both boys and girls, and orphan care centers – we have 10,000 children that we look after and feed every day. In the women’s program, we reach out to 70,000 women, and we provide HIV and AIDS information and family planning information and supplies. We give small grants to groups, one of which is a group of market women. These are women who have been working their whole lives in the market, and their situation is dismal. When I first would visit them, my heart would break as I watched them sitting there, children on their laps, no toilet facilities, no running water in the market, no crib for the child. We started a grant program for these women, so they could begin to change their lives.
When I was elected to Parliament in 2004, the first thing I did was to evaluate the laws affecting women. In 2006, we passed the Domestic Violence Bill, which took a situation that was previously viewed as a private matter and subjected it to the law, thereby offering protection to women and children. This was especially poignant to me given what I’d gone through in my first marriage. Then the African Union asked me to serve as Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood, and I began to look for community-based strategies to improve maternal health. I went to the villages and I worked with village leaders making the connection between girls’ education and maternal health.
Back when I was fifteen, I made up my mind that when I grew up, I would send as many girls as possible to school – especially those who find themselves in vulnerable situations like Chrissie did. These girls now have choices about their lives, including when they will begin to have children, and how many children they want in their family. And I am proud to say that I have been blessed to be able to change the lives of many girls and many women, and that now there is a school – an excellent, free school – right next to where Chrissie lives.
Joyce Banda is the president of Malawi. Previously, she served as Malawi’s first female vice president. She was appointed as Malawi’s Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood in 2009 by the African Union. This essay is part of a series, Why We Care: Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. Read more powerful, personal essays written by global leaders about why they care about reproductive health by visiting Why We Care.
Photo copyright Dominic Chavez.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2013 print edition.