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In Malawi, A Woman In Power, An Economy In Need

Joyce Banda has become Malawi's first woman president after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
Amos Gumulira
AFP/Getty Images
Joyce Banda has become Malawi's first woman president after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Malawi's first female president takes office with a personal history of women's rights advocacy and a long fight ahead. For Joyce Banda, economic empowerment is crucial for women's progress. It is also a nationwide struggle now resting on her shoulders.

Banda, who had been the country's vice president, was sworn in Saturday, following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday.

As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, Banda has become Africa's second female president. The delayed announcement of Mutharika's death — and Banda's succession — had fueled speculation of a power struggle. The constitution clearly gives the vice president transitional power, Quist-Arcton tells our Newscast Unit, but Banda had had a falling out with Mutharika.

Banda will serve the rest of his term — until early 2014, according to The Associated Press.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Banda says Malawians will support her leadership.

"The election of me as a vice-president, and the election of [Liberian] President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, shows that Africans have grown in democracy because it means that they have confidence in both men and women leading them. Africans have decided that the time is now for women to participate in leadership."

In Malawi, 75 percent of the population earns less than $1 a day, The Christian Science Monitor reports. Maternal mortality rates in the country "are among the highest in the world," according to the United Nations.

The country's National Statistics Office surveyed women about their control over their own earnings. The 2010 report states [ pdf]:

"Thirty-seven percent of women decide for themselves how their earnings are used, and 21 percent of women make joint decisions with their husbands. Forty percent of the married women responded that decisions regarding how their earnings are spent are made mainly by their husbands."

Also, women without any education "are the least likely to be the main decision makers."

The report shows a similar trend in other areas of household decision making.

Banda has drawn a connection between education, money and empowerment. She founded the National Association of Business Women, the Young Women's Leaders Network and the Joyce Banda Foundation, Reuters reports.

Her nationwide promotion of the National Business Women Association "made her one of Malawi's most visible champions of gender equality," Al Jazeera reports.

Back in December, Inter Press Service Africa called Banda "a likely contender" for the 2014 presidential election. She told IPS Africa that young women have work ahead.

"My advice to younger women is that we have a moral obligation to make it. Regardless of what we face, we need to forge ahead, we need to keep going. For us, it is a responsibility that we have in order to push our fellow women forward."

Now president, she faces her own list of challenges. Last year, at least 19 died in anti-government protests, and Banda tells Al Jazeera there could be more unrest to come. The AP reports that "shortages of sugar, fuel and other commodities have created long, restive lines at shops and service stations."

Banda tells Al-Jazeera:

"I am confident that I am going to enjoy the support of Malawians, but it's not going to be easy because of the state of the economy of Malawi."

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Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.