Photo Katie C. Lin.
On an elegant veranda adorned with a red carpet, Malawi’s Vice President Joyce Banda recalls how her childhood friend Chrissie Mtokoma was always top of their class and how she struggled to beat her. But now decades later Banda is a likely contender for the country’s presidency in 2014, while Mtokoma lives in poverty.
“She went to school in the village and I went to school in the town,” begins the highest-ranking woman in Malawi politics. “I would get home Friday evening and Chrissie would be waiting for me by the roadside.”
Banda tells parallel narratives contrasting her own upbringing with that of Mtokoma’s. “In the village school, Chrissie was first in her class, all the way to standard six (grade eight),” she tells IPS. “I was always number two or three, always fighting to beat her. But I couldn’t.”
Later, both girls were accepted into prestigious secondary schools. But after just three months, Mtokoma was forced to drop out.
“Chrissie’s uncle couldn’t pay for a second semester,” Banda says. “That was it for Chrissie. She went back to the village and into a vicious cycle of poverty, ignorance, early marriage, and then early motherhood. By the time I finished school, she had maybe five children. And today, Chrissie is where I left her.”
Banda maintaines she was only able to stay in school thanks to the middle-class income her father earned working as a policeman. “So I went on, finished, and now I am vice president of this land,” she tells IPS. “Chrissie, she is locked up in the village, in poverty. And that makes me angry. Why am I here and she is not?”
As Banda entered adulthood, these childhood memories drew her attention to the benefits of education, and especially economic empowerment, to which she has dedicated much of her life.
In recent years, Malawian women have made significant gains in their struggle for full gender equality. Women are increasingly represented in national politics, for example. Malawi’s May 2009 federal election saw the proportion of female Members of Parliament rise from 14 percent to 22. And though a minority, it is not difficult to find women’s names among the ranks of corporate board members.
Yet women in Malawi remain disproportionately affected by poverty. In 2004, the National Statistics Office found that while only 25 percent of the country’s households were headed by women, they accounted for 58.4 percent of the country’s poorest homes. Moreover, women in Malawi remain significantly under represented in areas of economic decision-making.
Banda and other leading women argue that the key to addressing these problems is to put more of the country’s money in the hands of its mothers.
Continue reading this article at Inter Press Service.economic empowerment > education > gender > joyce banda > malawi > women's rights