NEWSMAKER-New Malawi president a women's champion

Sat Apr 7, 2012 5:18pm GMT

By Sherilee Lakmidas

April 7 (Reuters) - A champion of women's rights, Joyce Banda has become the first female head of state in southern Africa after taking over as Malawi's president following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika.

As vice-president, the mother of three assumed the top job in the landlocked and impoverished country on Saturday under the terms of the constitution.

The 61-year-old cuts a maternal figure that presents a stark contrast to her professorial predecessor, who styled himself the "Economist in Chief".

A winner of national and international awards for her work as a supporter of women's rights, Banda was last year named by Forbes Magazine as Africa's third most powerful female politician after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nigerian Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

She will hope her influence stands her in good stead as she looks to rebuild ties with Malawi's main foreign donors - including former colonial power Britain and the United States - who had squabbled with and been alienated by Mutharika.

Until now the policeman's daughter has spent a lot of her time and energy campaigning on behalf poor rural African women, trying to persuade them they should not simply accept the existence they have inherited.

She has said her ambition is to set women on the world's least developed continent free from the cycle of poverty and abuse that has haunted them for centuries.

In an interview late last year, she cited the case of a childhood friend in her ancestral village as one reason she has kept on campaigning.   Continued...

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