HAVING RECENTLY BANNED it, Malawi is beginning to take concrete steps to end child marriage.
However, it’s Malawi’s girls daring to break the traditions that are championing the country’s recent decision.
Memory Banda, an 18-year-old university student who refused to get married represents a new trend in Malawi: More and more Malawian girls and young women are saying no to child marriage and pursue their education and professional careers instead.
Memory had a rude awakening about the initiation camps and child marriages practised in her community when it happened to her 11-year-old sister, who is two years her junior.
Memory’s sister had her first menstruation aged 11, and she was taken to an initiation camp – a traditional rite of passage into adulthood where girls are taught how to sexually please men.
“It was so painful for me when my sister had to go through that and end up being pregnant,” she says. Memory herself, on the other hand, was determined to say no when she had her first menstruation, aged 13, and was also expected to participate into an initiation camp. It wasn’t easy to reject the tradition and say no. But seeing what happened to her sister, Memory was beginning to see the bigger picture of a problem that was affecting her community.
I knew that a lot of girls were affected – but being affected directly at that time – I started thinking other girls going through the same trap. A lot of girls dropped out of school at my age because of this very same norm.
At the age of 11, the life of Memory’s sister had changed forever after the initiation camp – where she was forced to have sex with an older man.
“When she came back home [from the camp], she stayed with us for a week and she knew she was pregnant. But nobody knew she was pregnant. When other women from my community saw that something has changed in her body, they approached my mother, they asked my sister a lot of questions and that’s where she confessed saying ‘I think I am pregnant.’.”
Following this, Memory’s sister packed her clothes, moved in with the man who left her pregnant at the initiation camp and dropped out of school to become a housewife. Despite the lack of a formal ceremony, when a girl gets pregnant and moves to the house of the impregnator, the community considers the pair to be married.
However, after experiencing violence and abuse in her marriage, Memory’s sister eventually moved back with her mother. Aged 16, she now raises her two children in family’s small farm in rural Northern Malawi. In the meantime, her ex-husband is now “married to another woman”.
“Maybe one day my sister will go back to school. Because she’s only sixteen, she can start her secondary school education. She always tells me that she always wanted to become a teacher. And I just hope that her dreams will be realised one day,” Memory says.
“I am a lucky girl,” she adds. As a university student majoring in journalism, she continues to do advocacy work with organisations such as Girls Empowerment Network, Let Girls Lead and Girls Not Brides. Having recently delivered a successful TED talk about child marriage, her voice starts to be recognised not only in her own community and Malawi, but also globally. She is determined to encourage more and more girls to be aware of their rights and say “no”:
I just hope that with my skills I’ll write as many stories as possible about the strength, the power of being a girl and changing the community.