Girls from the village of Nanthomba in Malawi gather for a portrait.

Editor’s Note: Joyce Banda assumed the presidency of Malawi in April and is a member of the Aspen Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

Story highlights

Childhood friend of Malawi President Joyce Banda had to drop out of school

Chrissie's family couldn't pay for school, Banda says, so now she lives in poverty with kids

Banda: In Malawi, girls often give birth and have no health care

Banda calls for education, access to birth control to lift families out of poverty

CNN  — 

When I was young, one of my best friends lived in my grandmother’s village. I saw Chrissie every weekend as we made our way through childhood – she in the village school and I in the town school. We finally came together as students in secondary school.

Sadly, Chrissie studied with me for only one term, as her parents could not afford the school fee of $6. She returned to her village, married early and had more than a half-dozen children. She lives there still, locked in poverty. My parents, on the other hand, could afford the school fees, and I was lucky enough to finish my schooling and eventually to run a successful business. Now, I am president of Malawi.

On Wednesday, I take the floor of the U.N. General Assembly as the second female president of an African country, and one of about 14 in the world, I am honored to bring my message of hope for Malawi and for Africa to the world.

When I travel through my country and talk to the people, I see myself and Chrissie in the children I meet, who are bursting with intelligence and creativity and joy. But when I take the stage at the United Nations to represent my country, I also represent the parents of Malawi’s children, the women who fear the dangers of giving birth and the men who search desperately to find work to pay for their families’ basic needs.

Joyce Banda

The bad news about Malawi is not news to anyone. About 85% of Malawians live in rural villages in extreme poverty; AIDS and malaria are rampant. A single crop failure can ruin so many. These development challenges are intertwined in the lives of Malawians, and we must fight for progress on many fronts if we are to lift my country from poverty.

The journeys of women in my country – and in countries all over the developing world – are never easy. The health of our women in particular is central to many of our development challenges, and is an issue to which I have been devoted since I almost lost my life delivering my fourth child. It was only because I was fortunate enough to have access to a specialist in a hospital that I am alive today.

Last year, I visited a hospital where a baby had just died. Born in the dark of night with no electricity, that child had the cord wrapped around her neck and no one had seen it. In clinics I see women waiting to give birth on the floors of the corridors because there is no other place.

When I took office, I launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, a project that I hope will reverse the poor access to reproductive health services for women in my country. Our girls, 15- and 16-year-olds, are having children themselves; they should be going to school, and we must support them and provide them with family planning education.

When we empower women with education and access to reproductive health services, we can lift an entire nation. Women who can choose when to have children and how many they will have are more likely to complete their education, start small businesses and participate actively in society. And as I witnessed with my friend Chrissie, education itself is vital to give women that choice in the first place. This is why efforts to improve the lives of women and children reinforce efforts to strengthen our economy and reduce poverty.

After the speeches of the world leaders are over, the U.N. General Assembly will come together to determine how it will tackle poverty and set benchmarks to measure progress in economic development. I will do everything I can to make sure that women’s reproductive health remains a central focus.

We cannot afford to squander the potential of girls such as Chrissie any longer.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joyce Banda.