Maggie Kathewera Banda, executive director of WomenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Legal Resources Centre (Wolrec), which is based in eight districts within Malawi, on fighting to eradicate harmful cultural practices in the country, empowering women with information on legal issues and juggling her role as employer, mother, wife and mayi busa.
What is Wolrec?
We are basically a womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rights organisation with a focus on how we can advance womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rights in Malawi. Our main mission is to facilitate increased access to justice thus legal, social and economic justice for women and girls in Malawi. We have not done a lot with girls but it is something that we are working on. I established Wolrec in December 2004 but got it registered in 2006. Currently, we employ 26 people.
What qualifications and experience have enabled you to run Worlec?
I have a University Degree in social sciences, obtained from the University of Malawi, Chancellor College in 1997. I also did a post graduate course in NGO management at the University of London. I have also trained in gender and advocacy. These things combined have enabled me to run the organisation well.Ã‚Â
What is your work experience? How did this prepare you for Wolrec?
When I finished college, I went to work at the National Bank of Malawi as a bank clerk, I was there for a year. After that, I joined GTZ-Tevet; a project by Tevet but being funded by GTZ. I worked as a project facilitator. Basically, my job involved linking out of school youths to skilled people so that they can learn such kind of skills.
From there, I moved on to Women And Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa) where I worked for six years as gender programme officer. After that, I set up Wolrec. My previous jobs, except the bank, involved working with people in rural areas. We mobilised people, gave them knowledge so they could fight for their own rights and, through it all I grew to have a passion for such work.
What personal traits do you have that have helped you excel?
Determination. I am the kind of person who never wants to give up on any project that I begin. I think this is a personal trait that has helped me forge ahead. When first started Worlec, a lot of people told me I would not succeed but with time, I managed to grow the organisation.
Now, I am happy that I never listened to anyone but myself and of course a few others. I would tell my fellow women to be determined, hardworking, believe in themselves and have high self-esteem if they are to achieve their goals.
As executive director, what exactly do you do?
I manage the different projects that we have and make sure that we have staff on the ground, because we have support staff in all the eight districts we are working. Being a donor dependent NGO, you know that calls for funding activities and that is what I seek.Ã‚Â I also lobby and advocate to the people in decision making positions which includes working with government officials.
How do you interact with people in rural areas so that you get to the crux of the matter?
We normally create groups of women and men within which they are able to discuss various problems within their villages and identify the way forward. These issues are brought to us through our district coordinators. We then work out a way forward. We encourage the people not to depend solely on Wolrec. We empower them with adequate information with which to approach service providers/duty bearers to demand the fulfillment and protection of their rights.
What happens after their concerns have been given to you? Do you offer any solutions? How?
It all depends on the type of concerns. Some concerns require legal intervention so we provide legal aid for free, especially to women who cannot afford to pay for services of a private lawyer.
In this case, we do not tell our clients what kind of solutions they should go for but we provide information on rights and what the law says on their particular situation because we want them to make informed choices.
So, for example, if a woman is experiencing domestic violence we inform them about the Prevention of Domestic Violence Law and also the Marriage and Divorce Act so that at the end of the day, they can ably choose the best option for themselves.
If they present concerns that we cannot offer solutions on, then we refer the people to other players such as Victim Support Unit (VSU), magistrate courts, police other nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).
What are the major challenges that you face when interacting with the people?
Social change takes time so you really have to work with the communities for a reasonable period in order for them to embrace change. Due to lack of resources, we have to work extra hard as some may go back to their original practices.
We have also discovered that the major reason why some people still engage in some of these practices is for monetary gains. For example, we have discovered that chiefs may be paid during certain events. So the challenge remains with regard to what other alternatives can be provided to replace these, otherwise it is a tough job.
Who do you work with?
We work with government, especially Ministry of Gender, Children Affairs and Community Development both at national and local levels and other NGOs such as Yoneco, Cavwoc and Malawi Carer. This actually depends on whether other organisations are based in the districts.
How do you deal with people who seem resistant to change?
We have made it a point that we need to work with custodians of culture in order to reach out to others. So we have been working with chiefs and advisors within villages such as Angaliba and Anankungwi so that they reach out to their fellow community members. We have also worked a lot with men that have embraced change in order to reach out to the men that are resistant to change.
Enough of Wolrec, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talk about you. Are you married?
Yes, I am married to Kondwani Kathewera Banda who is a pastor but currently studying ACCA and also doing business. We have two children; a boy aged 6 and a girl aged 3. The fact that my husband is a pastor means I also help with pastoral duties such as working with women in the church and other things which may need my help.
You mentioned that your husband is a pastor…
Yes, he started a church called Living Cornerstone, which is new and still small. As a pastorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wife, it is critical that I encourage a love of the word of God among women, so I make sure that we meet for Bible studies regularly. We also cheer the sick and when my husband is not around I also preach in the church.
Of what significance is this role to your life?
Working with women, whether in communities or in the church has made me realise how important women empowerment is. Women need to find power within themselves through knowing the law and their rights and through knowing the Word of God, which gives them strength.Ã‚Â
What keeps you motivated?
Seeing people change for the better. Seeing women speak in public, support themselves and take matters into their own hands motivates me. It keeps me going. With Wolrec, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not just a matter of implementing projects but also ensuring that change takes place.
Any plans for self development?
At the moment I am planning on enrolling for a masterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree in development studies. Due to the demands of my works, I have settled on on-line study and have registered with a University in South Africa. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think I will work with Wolrec for the rest of my life, at some point, I will let someone take over so that I can do other things.