President Joyce Banda of Malawi, Africa's second female Head of State, used the occasion of an official visit to her counterpart, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, to speak about her difficult journey to the presidency,
to thank the Liberian leader for all of the emotional support rendered, and to highlight some of the measures she has taken, in just three weeks in office, to empower the women of her country.
With President Sirleaf, senior officials of government and women leaders of Liberia in attendance, President Banda delivered a major address at a program in her honor, held at Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development on the final day of her two-day visit to Liberia.
According to an Executive Mansion release, President Banda and her delegation enjoyed Sunday breakfast at the residence of President Sirleaf. They were joined by Cabinet Ministers, officials of other branches of Government, and women leaders, including Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. Gifts were exchanged.
Paying homage to President Sirleaf at the honoring program, President Banda said: "I want you to know that I shall forever be indebted to you, for the courage and inspiration that you have shown me and the women of Africa. You broke the glass ceiling, and that is why today Joyce Banda is President of Malawi."
President Banda thanked President Sirleaf for "paving the way" and setting the pace for the rest of Africa's women. "This is a historic day for Africa, and, in particular, for African women. This is our day; this is our year; this is our decade!" Africa has two women as Heads of State, she said, and she was honored to be the second.
She remembered that, in 2009, when campaigning for the vice presidency, President Sirleaf had called upon Malawians to vote for her. Recently, when the government was in transition, upon the death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika, she had confidence that Malawians and all people of goodwill would embrace a female President because, in President Sirleaf, "the world had witnessed that African women leaders are achievers. They walk the talk, and they keep their promises. So, my Sister, I want you to know that you are a big part of my history."
She informed the audience, and the people of Liberia, that President Sirleaf had been a staunch sympathizer during her difficult times: being expelled from her party; being told that one of the many sins she committed was "to appear ambitious and to eye the top job"; and several attempts to remove her from the constitutionally elected position of Vice President. She had refused to let that happen, President Banda said, believing that "it is not fair, in a democratic era, to marginalize women for becoming what they want to be. I held onto that belief, knowing that the vice presidency was not just for me, but for all of the women of Malawi." Had she allowed such plans to remove her to succeed, "I was going to let down the women of Malawi. My surrender would dash the ambitions of Malawian girls who dream of becoming a vice president or a president one day.... My surrender would have been a huge setback to the women's agenda and to the women's movement. That is why I held on, and stayed the course, no matter how rough the road was."
She thanked the millions of men who joined the women of Malawi in helping her to fight on. In fact, President Banda said, when the ruling party had announced that Malawi was not ready for a female president, it was the men, women and civil society that condemned the statement and the party was forced to withdraw it.
It was in those difficult circumstances that President Sirleaf had comforted her, and encouraged her to hold on, the President of Malawi recalled. At the tenth anniversary celebration of the African Women's Development Fund, in Accra, in 2010, the Liberian President had called upon the women to issue a communiqué condemning the acts of intimidation against Vice President Banda, and had also discussed her situation with President Mutharika. That, President Banda said, was a clear sign of sisterhood, of African women supporting each other. President Sirleaf had been her support in her "darkest moments," and she was grateful for the emotional support. She also thanked other women's organizations for their supportive statements.
Looking back, she said, going through the difficult times had prepared her for this day, because from now onwards, "I shall fight and fight."
She informed the audience that she would use her presidency to accelerate the advancement of women. In just three weeks as President, she had undertaken the following initiatives towards women's empowerment: (1) invited the AU Gender Director to come and launch Malawi's Decade for Women Action Plan; (2) appointed eight women to the Cabinet; (3) appointed a woman to the powerful position of Minister for Development; (4) appointed a woman to the position of Inspector General of Police; (5) launched an initiative on maternal health and safe motherhood, to advance girls' education and to stop unnecessary deaths of women in childbirth; (6) would shortly be announcing an initiative on food security; (7) had ordered all video houses to ban the use of inflammatory and degrading language towards women; and (8) had launched a market women's initiative, and would continue to learn from the market women of Liberia.
My conviction, said President Banda, "is that the climate for women's lives in Malawi will never get better than when a woman President is sitting in the driver's seat." She was aware that the cause of went beyond Malawi, as women in Africa face many challenges, such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, conflict, and more. However, she firmly believed in working together to make life on the continent better. The women from Malawi and Liberia could do a lot together, she said, and encouraged exchange visits.
In welcome remarks earlier, Gender Minister Julia Duncan-Cassell said that women from various organizations - rural areas, markets, schools, churches -- had come to join the Liberian President in wishing President Banda well, to let her know that the women of Liberia stand with her, and to testify to how their lives had been transformed during President Sirleaf's time in office.
Madam Kebbeh Monger, President of the National Rural Women Structure said that when rural women speak, great things happen. Although they were not educated, rural women were proving that they had ideas, could organize and be successful. She thanked President Sirleaf for empowering Liberia's rural women, and hoped that President Banda would do the same for the rural women of Malawi.
Delivering the vote of thanks, Madam Lusu Sloan, President of the Liberia Marketing Association, said she had rushed from Salala to see, for herself, the second African woman President. She welcomed President Banda, saying, this is your country; Malawi and Liberia are friends; our women should travel to get to know one another and gain experience. Since 2006, she said, market women have experienced a transformation in their lives: where once they sold their goods in the rain and the sun, today they are selling in markets constructed for their use. Some market women, who previously could neither read nor write, now go to the bank to make deposits and withdrawals. She also thanked the former and current Ministers of Gender for their initiatives on behalf of the market women, which included the Next Level program, as well as several schools, within the markets, for the small children. She concluded: "Women have been suppressed for so long, that God said enough is enough. I don't care what the men do; I will lift the women up."
At the honoring program, Liberian women sang, chanted and danced in celebration of the visit of Africa's second female President, and presented her with a traditional Liberian fabric, dubbed "Joyce," to wear across her shoulder. Another gift, Gender Minister Duncan-Cassell said, was to remind President Banda that all the women of Liberia - rural, market, adolescent girls, and professional women - support her.
Following the honoring program, President Banda departed Liberia for Abuja, Nigeria, on the next leg of her regional visits. The departure ceremony was attended by an array of government officials, headed by President Sirleaf.