‘Maybe women just can’t lead’


If the past two years have achieved anything, besides everything between nothing and mediocrity, it has done very little to convince Malawians of the value women can create if given the reins of power. The nation and the world saw Joyce Banda as a beacon of hope and possibility for all women in Africa; some even called her a “game-changer”. But Joyce Banda, almost single-handedly, managed to turn this national goodwill and positive energy, which characterised her ascension to leadership, into a national joke — a joke which even had its own sickening catchphrase: “Is it because I’m a woman?”

Joyce Banda’s two years at the steering wheel of this crazy little southern African country will raise all kinds of questions about whether her leadership has hurt or bolstered the factoids that have placed women as better caretakers of homes and communities (and therefore countries) than their male counterparts. Her chapter in the annals of history will be short, and for many Malawians, that chapter is best forgotten like a surreal nightmare that felt all too real for comfort. But, being Malawi’s first female President, her contribution and legacy these past two years to the women’s fight to break the “glass ceiling” will be debated for many years, but one thing seems to be evident.

Despite her being a woman activist in her own right, ironically Joyce Banda has helped shift the “glass ceiling” even higher than ever before. The decades of gains made by other great Malawian women, including Vera Chirwa, Seodi White and Kate Kainja, have been eroded in such a short time — and men had nothing to do with it. This all proves a simple life truth that it is so easy to destroy than it is to create or build.

But that said, I must hasten to add, not all women are Joyce Banda and Joyce Banda does not represent all women. But we can’t ignore the fact that she has only confirmed the many stereotypes that Malawians, including women themselves, have had about women in leadership and that is: women just can’t lead!

In the same vein, a similar trend is showing in the parliamentary seating. Among the many casualties during this 2014 election, which has overstayed its welcome like a house guest who does not know when to leave, surely must be the decimated women’s representation in Parliament.

The numbers have dwindled so drastically from the “glory days” that 50-50 campaign champion, Emma Kaliya, actually vented her frustration in the media saying she would tender her resignation because she saw this “dwindling” as a personal failure. You have got to hand it to her – she is one of the few Malawians who understands personal accountability; that is if she actually resigns. But the question must now be asked — after all the goodwill and investment that was poured into the 50-50 campaign, why is it the goal of a balanced parliament with an equal gender balance seems to shift ever further away?

The seemingly elusive goal of attaining equal gender representation has been fraught with all kinds of challenges but, my personal un-womanly take on the matter is that its major problem has more to do with strategy than material challenges. Having had a few years’ experience working alongside many gender activists, there is one issue I have had with the women’s empowerment movement in Malawi.

The movement was more concerned with quantity, and less on quality, in the hope that the numbers would somehow magically translate into actual gains policy-wise without really clarifying how that would happen. If recent events do not prove the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of such a strategy then I don’t know what will.

To take this thought a little further, before women demand my castration, the focus of the movement has predominantly been on having women in leadership rather than having women leaders. No — I am not playing with words — those are completely different things. A woman in leadership can have title or designation and be high up in the echelons of power and not actually be a leader. She can so easily be a mere chair-warming figurehead and not a strategic thinker, decision-maker or go-getter.

A woman leader, on the other hand, is different — a woman leader may not have title, but she is motivated and driven to get things done in her family, community or country. These may sound similar, linguistically speaking, but they are as dissimilar as black is from white; the difference being that women leaders have a proven record of delivery, substance, gravitas and a little dash of je ne sais quoi. As such, because Malawians have been exposed to mere women in leadership who lack the substance or gravitas to lead a nation of peoples, the electorate is left asking a very simple question: “Is this the best women have to offer?”

Referring back to the outgoing president to illustrate this point, Joyce Banda did have a record of delivery in her pre-presidential life, but she lacked substance and gravitas to lead. And that’s the thing she never quite understood. To many Malawians, it was never about her being a woman — it was about her being a leader.

From one blunder to the next, Joyce Banda might have been ill-advised in thinking that loquaciousness was the same as leadership. Instead she came across as simply affirming one of the many stereotypes that I had hoped never to verbalise which is: a woman in leadership can so often be synonymous with an empty seat, have a very loud mouth, but say absolutely nothing worth listening to.

I really hope, as she reflects on her once-in-a-lifetime tenure, she realises where she got it wrong — I really, really hope.

As Joyce Banda rejoins the common people, the women’s empowerment movement now has to face a new kind of battle — thanks, in no small measure, to Joyce Banda herself. If it is to make any kind of impact at legislative or national levels, they have to shift the conversation away from quantity, and merely having the “approved” genitalia, to seeking out, and grooming, women leaders who exemplify enough substance and gravitas to influence men and policy.

Other than that, women should get used to the idea of a parliament with people of the “disapproved” genitalia dominating the discourse of debate and conversation.

Personally, I am looking forward to the day when I can refer to any leader, of the female folk, as simply “a leader” without having to put the qualifying prefix of “woman”. Think about it! When was the last time you heard male members of parliament being referred to as “men leaders”? – Malawi Voice

June 2014
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