Memory Banda grew up in rural Malawi in a community that practices child marriage. The girls in her village were expected to leave school to attend an initiation camp when they reached puberty, usually at the age of 10, 11 or 12. While at these camps, they were taught how to please men and were expected to have sex with an older man to prepare them for adulthood.
When Memory, the oldest of six children, was 13-years-old, she refused.
“I said no, because I knew where I was going,” she said. “I knew what I wanted in life.”
Memory dreamed of becoming a lawyer. She faced ridicule in her community for refusing to follow their traditions. When her younger sister went to the camp and became pregnant at the age of 11, the women in her village asked her when she was going to have a baby as well.
Each year, 15 million girls under the age of 18 get married. Early marriage leads to higher maternal death rates, perpetuates the cycle of poverty and denies girls access to education, making them dependent on their much older husbands.
Memory remained in school, in spite of the whispers that she heard in her village, and organized literacy classes for the other girls in her community, including her sister, who had become young mothers and forgotten how to read and write.
In 2011, she met Faith Phiri, the co-founder of the Girl’s Empowerment Network of Malawi (GENET) and joined with other girls to pass local bylaws that raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 and imposed heavy fines in the form of chickens, goats and land for offenders. This was the first time that her community had passed a bylaw for the protection of girls.
“We did not stop there,” she said. “We were determined to fight for girls not just in my community but in other communities.”
So, GENET took their campaign to the national level, supporting the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations bill that would raise the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18-years-old. GENET leaders stood outside of Parliament every day asking members to vote for the bill and in early 2015, the bill was signed into law. The law, however, does not change the country’s constitution, which allows marriage at the age of 15 and simply requires the government to discourage, not punish, underage marriage. In Malawi, 50 percent of girls aged 18 are already married.
“A law is not a law until it is enforced,” Banda said, noting that in Malawi because the law is not being publicized in some local communities, many girls are unaware of their rights. Pressure from the community also keeps girls from taking a stand for their education and their future.
Memory wants to end child marriage in one generation but this will take more than laws. It will require a change in cultural attitudes and traditions and cooperation from men.
“Together, I know that we can change the legal and cultural framework that denies girls their rights,” she said. “We can end child marriage in a generation. This is the moment where millions of girls worldwide will be able to say, ‘I will marry when I want.'”