A Champion for Women’s Rights in the Driver’s Seat


As a feminist activist, I’ve never had a dream as I have now because I can see us moving forward, Joyce Banda puts women on her agenda as a top priority so we have the door open and once women are together, ten, twenty, more—there’s a lot that we can accomplish. ~ Thokozile Phiri-Nkhoma, Malawian activist

For women in Malawi, the appointment of President Joyce Banda in April 2012, the first female head of state in Southern Africa and a champion of women’s rights, is a powerful marker for change. Banda’s commitment to women’s issues predates her presidency and she is using her current position to gain leverage and momentum. Last week she suspended enforcement of Malawian laws that criminalize homosexuality, putting a moratorium on arrests and prosecutions of LGBT people.

Having spent much of her time and energy campaigning on behalf poor rural African women, her ambition is to set women from one of the least developed countries in the world free from the cycle of poverty and abuse. This presents exciting opportunities for women’s organizing and women’s leadership and decision making from local to international spheres, as evidenced by President Banda’s willingness to meet face-to-face with positive women activists at the recent Global Race to SAVE Lives from HIV and AIDS International Conference.

Banda recently attended a national dialogue with organizations representing positive Malawians which includes JASS allies, MANERELA+, COWLHA (Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS), NAPHAM and TILIPO (Teachers Living Positively). Activist leader, Esnat Mbandambanda shared how women experience the antiretroviral regimen that contains Stavudine, including the way the drug distorts women’s bodies, the stigma they face in their communities, and the lack of resources to sustain life. Banda has pledged to rollout a new regimen, Tenofovir, nationwide by July 2013. However, in a context where donors are playing a big role in subsidizing HIV programming, the provision of quality ART faces challenges. While big funders like The Global Fund and PEPFAR have pledged to fund better ART for all positive Malawians for a year, what happens post-2014? The potential risks for those living with HIV/AIDS are fatal.

If we campaign for better ARVs, will the government sustain that regimen? What are we as Malawians supposed to do? We pay a lot of taxes and we are sick, so we are asking what can the government do for us? Each year, ARVs for all Malawians should make up 20% of the budget. We are going to challenge the government to make a policy to ensure a sustainable ART regimen regardless of whether donors are here or not. And we also need the government to make sure that positive women can have their own resources like savings loans, fertilisers. It’s our responsibility to fight for these things. ~ Sibongile Chibwe, MANERELA+

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