In 1995, a few years before becoming Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda listened attentively to a speech delivered by then-U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton at the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China. This lady is out of her mind, she remembers thinking at the time.
“I heard what she was saying 20 years ago, I thought she was crazy,” Banda told Devex on the sidelines of the Rising Peace Forum in Coventry, England, on Tuesday. Clinton told heads of state in the controversial address that women’s rights were human rights. She continued, the goals of the conference “to strengthen families and societies by empowering women to take greater control over their own destinies cannot be achieved unless all governments here and around the world accept their responsibility to protect and promote internationally recognized human rights.”
These words affected Banda throughout her own fight to ascend the political ladder in Malawi, she told Devex. Banda recounted how she often faced resentment from male colleagues and thinly veiled sexism in the press.
“But [Clinton] was ahead and me who was behind,” Banda said, realizing through her own ascendancy that in fact, it was possible for a woman to rise to the top.
Reflecting on Clinton’s defeat in last week’s U.S. presidential election, Banda pointed out that the loss “goes deeper” than just one vote: Women leaders across the world are suffering close and controversial political defeats, often due to “allegations of corruption” leading to “terms cut short for female leaders.”
Banda pointed to “what was faced by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard,” as well as allegations leveled against South Korea’s current Prime Minister Park Geun-hye and the recent impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, former president of Brazil.
The suggestion that sexism doesn’t run deeper than a single election, one developing country or even one hemisphere is naive, Banda said.
“It’s a global challenge, it’s a global problem that we have made some progress on, but there’s a long way to go,” she said. With these examples from South Korea, Brazil, Thailand, Australia, her own Malawi “and now the United States,” Banda said the problem is endemic to people, not states or eras.
Banda now hopes to play a role in putting women in positions of power. “Those of us who are out [of office] now, who have seen what happens, need to work to support women leaders and share our experience,” she said.