Malawi's new President Joyce Banda gives a press conference in Lilongwe, April 10, 2012.
Malawi's new President Joyce Banda gives a press conference in Lilongwe, April 10, 2012.

Joyce Banda?s swearing in as president of Malawi this month made her the second female head of state in Africa - following Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?s election victory in Liberia in 2005. Many see this as a key advance for women on a continent that has been dominated by male political figures.

Joyce Banda

John Kapito, chairman of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, has been following Joyce Banda?s career for many years. He watched in 1990 as Banda founded the National Association of Business Women, which provides training and loans to women wanting to start up small-scale businesses.  

He also followed the creation of the Joyce Banda Foundation, a charity that helps orphans and low-income children in Malawi get an education. In 1997 Banda was awarded the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger - conferred by the U.S.-based Hunger Project.

Banda?s slow but steady climb to the top has not been easy. She walked away from an abusive marriage in 1981 at a time when most women stayed in such situations. Much later, as vice president of Malawi and also deputy president of the ruling party, she lost her party position after refusing to support then-president Bingu wa Mutharika in his bid to have his brother take over the presidency.

Becoming president

So, after Mutharika died suddenly at the beginning of April, Vice President Joyce Banda became President Joyce Banda.

Malawi Human Rights Commission chairman Kapito says Banda is a role model for women and the nation as a whole - well able to ensure that the rights of the poor, especially rural women, are respected. 

?As a woman I think she has demonstrated that, one, she can be listened to," said Kapito. "She cannot be manipulated quickly. Most of the businesses in Malawi are run by the male, and they are dominated by the male. And that, I think, will be a test where she can put her foot down and say, I would want to transfer all these resources to the rural people, to the poor people in the rural areas.?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sits at a
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sits at a ceremony to mark her second presidential inauguration at the Capitol in Monrovia, Liberia, January 16, 2012.

Skip over to the other side of the continent, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is enjoying her second term as president of formerly war-torn Liberia.

Ebrahim Faqir, manager for governance at the South African-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, notes that both Presidents Banda and Sirleaf have had strong track records in promoting women?s rights as well as holding positions in the corporate and private sector - skills, knowledge, and experiences that they brought to their presidencies.

President Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, was an executive in the international banking community and a former economist working for The World Bank and Citibank in Africa.

Like Joyce Banda, Sirleaf has taken heat for some unpopular stances, including a crackdown on corruption, stringent debt-reduction measures, and what some considered an over-reliance on foreign aid.

Living up to hopes

Faqir says he thinks Sirleaf has largely lived up to the great hope that surrounded her 2005 election.

?She instituted a truth and reconciliation commission," said Faqir. "She announced very drastic policy changes - the most key among them free education at least for children up to a certain age. She introduced some kind of policy change for revitalization in the health sector and in the economy, and trying to stem the tide of corruption.?

Faqir says Sirleaf?s and Banda?s successes come at a time when child-rearing and domestic chores still limit many women from pursuing high-level positions in public office - and that a lack of support for women in these areas is a world-wide phenomenon. He says in many parts of Africa, there is still a clash between traditional and modern views of women?s role in public life - but that is changing rapidly.

Role of women in Africa

?There are massive shifts taking place across the African continent," added Faqir. "There is a rise of a civil society, a rise of direct citizen action. And I think much of this does find in evidence an increasing role for women, not just among civil and political actors, but also in the economy.?

In the opinion of Elisha Attai, founder of the African Women in Leadership Organization, the Sirleaf and Banda presidencies highlight qualities inherent in women that seem to suggest they can be better leaders in places like his home country, Nigeria.

?Most of these positions that have done so well - whether in government, whether in national industry - are being manned by women; and you do not have issues," said Attai. "But most of the corrupted offices that we had problems with, are being handled by men. So I just feel naturally a strong woman, who is well-educated, is not really corrupt.?

In addition to possibly being less corrupt, he says he thinks women are less likely to go to war or to get caught up in politically-motivated wrangling.