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Vital Voices was pleased to host a dinner with H.E. Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, in honor of her official visit to the United States. Pres. Banda, with her husband former Chief Justice Richard Banda, was joined by the Malawi Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Ralph Kasambara; the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Honorable Ephraim Mganda Chiume, M.P.; as well as the Ambassador Jeanine Jackson, U.S. Ambassador to Malawi and Congresswoman Connie Morella. Vital Voices Global Leadership Network members Kah Walla and Danielle St. LĢ«t (pictured, below left) were also present.

Pres. Banda was in the United States as part of a broader tour to the U.K. and U.S., which included meetings with high-ranking policy officials, private sector and civil society leaders, and Malawi Diaspora leaders in both countries. Pres. Banda also spoke at the USAID Frontiers of Development conference held at Georgetown University, with Vital Voices’ Vice Chair Prof. Carol Lancaster and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

The purpose of the Vital Voices gathering, hosted by Paula and Michael Robinson, was to honor Pres. Banda as a leader and trailblazer for women’s rights, and to galvanize support for her efforts to improve governance and development in Malawi. “The best thing that has happened in Africa is that men believe women can lead,” said Banda. Compared to the number of women in the U.S. Congress, just 16%, Malawi has 25% women in their parliament. Pres. Banda has already made groundbreaking advances in rooting out corruption and restoring confidence in Malawi’s economic and social environment. “I have given all public sector leaders until June 18 to report any fraud or corruption,” said Banda, or else they will face the full extent of prosecution for any wrongdoing uncovered in ensuing investigations.

Women in the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network in Malawi are especially proud of her. Tawile Kaunde Boko, an alumna of the African Women’s Leadership in Public Life Program, said, “I am pleased with the fact that people are eager to meet our president. ‘J.B.,’ as we fondly call her, is a powerful woman here in Malawi, she has been there for the less privileged and it’s like a blessing to Malawians to have her as a president.” Tawile can especially relate to Pres. Banda, as both are committed to women’s health issues. Tawile has led trainings for women leaders aspiring for public office, as well as a Mentoring Program with a focus on health. Tawile’s own mentor, Dorothy Ngoma, former director of the National Organization of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi (NONM), has recently been appointed as the National Coordinator for Pres. Banda’s safe motherhood efforts. Tawile said, “Mrs. Dorothy Ngoma is another powerful woman who has also changed the lives of women. She is a determined woman leader and a go-getter. We were pleased to hear about this.”  

Pres. Banda’s priorities for the remaining two years of her term are: maternal health; girls’ education; economic development/poverty alleviation; and agricultural sector development. At the dinner, Pres. Banda spoke passionately about a heartbreaking experience at rural hospital and the hardships women face: “In America, women celebrate pregnancy and the expectation of the child that is coming; in Africa, when a woman is pregnant, that is when the anxiety begins.” In some instances, woman must carry their own candles with them to the clinics to ensure there is light during the delivery, or they may give birth in the dark. 

Pres. Banda aims to make measurable progress in her priority areas within her first hundred days in office, and Vital Voices President and CEO Alyse Nelson (pictured, left) led a discussion to facilitate commitments of support to Banda’s agenda. Several offers were made to assist these efforts. Dr. Kristina Johnson, the former Under Secretary of Energy of the U.S. Department of Energy and current CEO of Enduring Energy, pledged to donate 90 “Solar Suitcases” to provide light and solar power to rural maternal clinics in Malawi. The Chicago firm of Sidley Austin also offered free legal services in international trade and foreign affairs to the government of Malawi. Other commitments were made in areas of media, communications, and technology. Pres. Banda encouraged Vital Voices and other partners to mobilize such support before the end of her first 100 days in office, which culminates on July 15. She invited partners to come to Malawi on July 15 to help celebrate her first 100 days and to announce at least one major commitment toward her policy priorities. 

Said Tawile, “With all these commitments, we will be grateful because President Banda’s efforts to improve the lives of the people-especially the grassroots- are being complimented. We hope you will be with us on this special  day.”

“Leadership is a love affair,” said Pres. Banda. “You must fall in love with the people, and the people must fall in love with you.”

Celena Green is the Senior Program Officer for the Africa program at Vital Voices. 

In first picture: Alyse Nelson; President Banda; Paula Robinson; Bobbie Greene McCarthy.