Memory Banda opens her TED talk with a poem written by a 13 year old girl entitled “I Will Marry When I Want, in which the speaker claims she will not marry until she is grown up, well educated, and even if she is beaten it will be a choice made by her and not her relatives. The title of the poem drew a laugh from the audience, as I suppose it seems a sweet mental image of a teenage girl protesting to her mum that she doesn‚Äôt want to get married, sweet because in our society the idea of a 13 year old getting married seems ridiculous. However in the society Memory and the author of the poem are from, child marriage is still disturbingly prevalent, and as the poem continued it became fairly obvious that it holds a more serious message than was initially understood.
Memory was born in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world where gender equality is dubious, and in a culture where the passing from childhood to adulthood is marked in a very different manner from what we are accustomed to. From the age of around 10, girls are sent to what are known as ‚Äòinitiation camps‚Äô, places where they are supposedly taught life-skills to prepare them for their transition into maturity. However, these ‚Äòlife-skills‚Äô consist of learning how to please their husbands in bed and involve a sexual initiation practice known as kuasa fumbi, where an older man is paid to come and have sex with these young girls, often exposing them to unwanted pregnancies or HIV infections in the process. Subsequently, Malawi has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, with 10% of the population being HIV positive. And it is not only the health of these girls that is at risk but also their education, as many are forced to leave school early in order to take care of their children ‚Äì even though they have themselves barely reached puberty. A Human Rights Watch report found that between 2010 and 2013, 44,000 girls attending primary school in Malawi dropped out due to marriage or pregnancy, with almost half the female population being married as child brides.
Memory was lucky in that she escaped this system, refusing to be sent to one of these camps and instead choosing to stay in school. In this decision she was however effectively ostracising herself from her community, going against the wishes of her elders and exposing herself to their hostility and pressure to conform. Every girl that chooses to shun the traditional ways of their society is told she is stupid, stubborn and disrespectful. The alternative however seems much worse, and it was one Memory saw in the experiences of her friends and her own family. Her younger sister was only 11 when she was sent to the initiation camps, and it was at this age that she became pregnant and was forced to marry the man who had sex with her. Now at 16 she has three children from three different marriages, and any dreams she had of a career of her own seem to have been forgotten. And this is the case for many of the girls in Memory‚Äôs community who may have at one point learnt to read and write yet have been forced to allow these skills to fall by the wayside. These girls‚Äô potentials are wasted, their dreams denied and their futures laid out for them according to the confines of their society‚Äôs expectations.
Growing up amidst this I suppose it would at times be tempting for Memory to surrender to the seeming inevitability of the situation, especially considering she was fighting against something that was so ingrained in the social mindset it must have seemed impossible to dislodge. Indeed, how many stories and statistics have we read and thought ‚Äòwhat could I do?‚Äô before giving up and falling back into our routine? However, she didn‚Äôt give up but organised literacy lessons for girls in her community, gathering their experiences and stories in the process and using them as a force for change, pushing community leaders to raise the age at which girls could marry and ultimately achieving the passing of bylaws protecting girls’ rights. Not only was the marriage age raised from 15 to 18 but the strength of the girls‚Äô voices caused the mentality surrounding the kuasa fumbi practice to be¬†altered, now being deemed a shameful ritual and penalising the men who take part in it. Thus, at only 18 years old Memory championed the campaign that ended child marriage in not only her village but in the entirety of Malawi, proving that through sustained work and resilience, change can be enacted and giving hope to the notion that we can end child marriage in a generation.
Memory is now attending college in Malawi but remains a leader for girls‚Äô rights around the world, working with organisations such as Let Girls Lead and the Girl Empowerment Network of Malawi to encourage girls to raise their voices and help alter the cultural and political framework that deny them their rights.
Girl Museum Inc.