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New Malawi President Joyce Banda offers hope for women

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 13 Apr 2012 11:48 GMT
Author: Lyndon Haviland
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lyndon Haviland is senior strategy fellow at Aspen Global Health and Development. The opinions expressed are her own.

On Saturday April 7th, Joyce Banda became Africa’s second sitting female president. As President of Malawi, Banda succeeds Bingu wa Mutharika who died of cardiac complications last week.

Once hailed as the “Economist in Chief” Mutharika leaves Malawi impoverished with some of the worst maternal health indicators on the continent – and with many donors, the United States and Britain included, having suspended aid.

President Banda offers women in Africa a second chance to experience women’s leadership (Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s recent Nobel Peace Prize demonstrates what can happen when women lead)  – and for the women of Malawi that cannot come soon enough.

A long time advocate for women’s health, education and gender equality, Banda offers women in Malawi hope for a better future.

As a founding member of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, Banda has been working on the international stage to accelerate progress toward universal access to reproductive health.

The international community should rally to support her – and offer women and children of Malawi the chance for a healthier future through new funds to support family planning and comprehensive reproductive health.

President Banda knows that access to education and health will change a girl’s future economic and social prospects – girls who stay in school marry later, have fewer children and go on to contribute more fully to the economic development of their communities and nations.

Her own life experience provides testimony to the importance of investing in girl’s education, and providing access to health services including family planning.

Through her Foundation, President Banda has made training women entrepreneurs, and providing nutrition and education for orphans and vulnerable children (many orphaned by HIV/AIDS) a priority.

With support from donors, she has the opportunity to take her programs to scale – perhaps even making Malawi the first country in Africa to achieve universal access to reproductive health and have zero HIV positive births by 2015.

Donors can help Malawi achieve these goals by securing funding and technical support to meet the unmet need for family planning and and prevent mother to child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.

Although Malawi has made rapid progress on scaling up family planning services, they cannot meet the needs of women and children due to lack of funding for basic family planning supplies.

On PMTCT, in 2011, Malawi adopted a radical public health approach to PMTCT that similarly has not been implemented for lack of funds.

Malawi’s plans are women centred and make good public health sense.  In PMTCT, Malawi takes the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations one step further and offers a new plan called B+.  

Malawi’s B+ protocol for PMTCT is elegant and simple – it takes a public health approach and places the women at the centre of care.   

B+ simplifies the guidance for caring for HIV positive pregnant women. In a bold move that makes treatment a form of prevention.

Malawi’s B+ approach will provide lifelong anti-retroviral therapy to all pregnant women who are HIV positive.  The plan puts the mother’s overall health and well being at the centre  – and links her survival and well being to that of her children.

President Banda’s own foundation has long recognized that maternal health is essential to family health – and children who are orphaned due to HIV are vulnerable in many ways.

Working with the government of Malawi to build and deliver their PMTCT B+ plan could be a first step in imagining a healthy future for the women and children of Malawi.

Donors should get a failing grade if we do not seize on the opportunity to support President and the women of Malawi in this moment of transition.


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