Meet Joyce Banda: A Women’s Rights Advocate Who Just Became President of Malawi

Since earlier today, Africa has its second female head of state. Joyce Banda, former vice-president of Malawi under Bingu wa Mutharika, was just sworn in as president, following the sudden death of Mutharika last week. While analysts were initially concerned that this unexpected power vacuum would lead to a difficult transition and put the country’s constitution in danger, Mrs. Banda’s swearing in has generally been welcomed as a positive step towards restoring legitimate power in Malawi’s highest office.

Joyce Banda first came to politics through business and organizing. In interviews, she’s described how breaking the shackles from an abusive marriage was the first step towards her lifetime of activism for women’s rights and empowerment. Over the years, Banda has advocated for maternal health initiatives, schooling for girls and supported the advancement of women in positions of leadership. As a leader herself – in business, civil society and politics – Banda has shined as the embodiment of a strong, principled woman.

As vice-president, Banda had a bit of an independent streak, forming her own political party last year (the People’s Party), after being expelled from the president’s ruling party for not supporting Mutharika’s brother as successor to party leadership and the presidency for the 2014 election. While her party has few seats in Parliament, both the ruling and main opposition parties have pledged to support her efforts, as she tackles Malawi’s challenges. Mutharika had had difficult relationships with the international community (the US and the UK, for example, have frozen millions in foreign aid to Malawi), and Banda will need to work towards mending key partnerships.

Beyond a difficult economic environment, Banda will also need to contend with some important human rights issues: fundamental freedoms – of speech, of assembly – were challenged under Mutharika’s rule. Indeed, several anti-government demonstrations ended up in riots with excessive amounts of police intimidation and violence in 2011. Already, opposition leader John Tembo has asked the new president to scrap a law in the Penal Code, enacted under Mutharika, that allows ministerial discretion to ban a newspaper.

Despite assurances from the current cabinet and major political parties, Banda is facing a challenging political environment. An outspoken critic of Mutharika’s autocratic tendencies, she will need to be able to work with the people he selected for key positions of power. Already, though, Banda is making her mark. No sooner had she been sworn in then she sacked the chief of police, who has been accused of mishandling anti-government riots last year. This move seems to signal that Banda will be a pro-active president, not shying away from tough decisions.

Mutharika’s untimely death could have spelled Malawi’s descent into a deep political crisis. The support for Joyce Banda – even if it is shortlived – and the fact that constitutional rules were upheld with support from across the political spectrum, have helped transform a sudden power vacuum into a real opportunity for change in Malawi.