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A girl started to oppose child marriage at the age of 13 after her sister got married at the age of 11

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When Memory Banda and her sister were children, they were inseparable, only a year apart in age, and often mistaken for twins. Not only do they have the same clothes and shoes, but they also share many of the same dreams and desires.

Then, one afternoon in 2009, the close relationship fell apart when Ms. Banda’s 11-year-old sister was forced to marry a man in his 30s who had impregnated her.

“She was a different person then,” Ms. Banda recalled. “We never played together again because she was ‘older’ than me now. I felt like I had lost my best friend.”

Her sister became pregnant and forced into marriage shortly after returning from the so-called initiation camp.

In parts of rural Malawi, parents and guardians often send their daughters to these camps as they enter adolescence, and Memory’s sister arrived there before her. The girls spend several weeks at the camp, learning about motherhood and sex—or, more specifically, how to sexually please a man.

After her sister gets married, Memory realizes that she and many of her peers in the village will be next.

A strong sense of resistance began to stir inside her, she said.

“I had a lot of questions,” she said, “like, ‘Why is this happening to such a young girl in the name of carrying on a tradition?'”

It was an awakening moment for the self-described “fierce children’s rights activist”, now 27, who helped push for a ban on child marriage in Malawi in 2015.

Although laws banning child marriage have been passed, enforcement has been weak and early marriage of girls remains common. In Malawi, 37.7% of girls get married before the age of 18 and seven percent Marry before the age of 15, according to a 2021 report from the country’s National Statistics Office.

The drivers of child marriage are multifaceted; poverty and cultural practices – including the long-standing tradition of initiation camps – are important parts of the problem. When girls return from refugee camps, many drop out of school and quickly fall into the trap of early marriage.

Eunice M’biya, a social history lecturer at the University of Malawi, said that in the past, almost every girl in some rural areas of the country went to initiation camps. “But the trend is slowly turning in favor of formal education,” Ms Mbia said.

Ms Banda’s own grassroots activism began in 2010, when she was just 13, in the small village of Chitera in the ChilaZulu district of southern Malawi.

Despite initial resistance from older women in the village, she rallied other girls in Chitera and became a leader in a local movement of girls saying “no” to the refugee camps.

when she was with Girls Empowerment Networkis a Malawi-based nonprofit that is lobbying lawmakers to address child marriage. It is also training girls in ChilaZulu region to be advocates and urging village chiefs to take a stand and enact local ordinances to protect teenage girls from early marriage and harmful sexual initiation practices.

Ms Banda has partnered with the non-profit organization on the Marry When I Want campaign, calling for the legal age of marriage to be raised from 15 to 18. Other activists, parliamentarians, and religious and civil society leaders joined in the fight, which was ultimately successful.

Today, Malawi’s constitution defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child.

Ms Banda’s role in campaigning against the practice won her favor United Nations Youth Activist Award 2019.

“Our events are very impactful because we bring together girls who tell their stories through their lived experiences,” Ms Banda said. “Since then, many people, after hearing the girls’ depressing stories, just want to be part of a movement and make a difference.”

Habiba Osman, a lawyer and prominent gender rights advocate who has known Ms. Banda since she was 13, described her as a trailblazer. “She was very instrumental in mobilizing girls in the community because she knew girls her age needed to go to school,” she said. “What I love about ‘Memory’ is that years later, after the law was enacted, she was still campaigning for its effective implementation.”

In 2019, with support from the Freedom Fund, an international non-profit organization dedicated to ending modern slavery, Ms Banda founded Girls Leadership Foundation Promote children’s rights and teach girls leadership skills.

“I want children to know their rights at a young age,” Ms. Banda said. “This is the group to target if we want to shape a better future.”

Although her nonprofit is still in its infancy, it has successfully helped more than 500 girls facing child marriage avoid that fate and stay in school or re-enroll.

Last year, she shared what she was doing with Michelle Obama, Melinda French Gates and Amal Clooney During a visit to Malawi As part of the Clooney Justice Foundation’s efforts to end child marriage.

“I witnessed these three inspiring women from different worlds, and just being able to be with them and talk to them was a huge moment in my life,” Ms. Banda said. “I never thought I would one day meet Michelle Obama.”

Ms. Banda was born in Chitera in 1997. Her father died when she was three, leaving her mother to raise two infant girls alone.

Ms Banda excelled in school and said she knew from an early age that learning would be crucial to her future.

“My sister’s experience sparked a deep desire for education in me,” she said. “Whenever I’m not at the top of my class, I have to make sure that I have to be the top next semester.”

She is outspoken in class and willing to ask questions and express herself, which proved crucial when she attended Head Start camp. She refused.

“I just said no because I knew what I wanted in life, and that was to get an education,” she said.

The women of Chitera view her as stubborn and disrespectful of their cultural values. She said she often heard comments like: “Look at you, you’re all grown up. Your sister has had a baby, how about you?” Ms. Banda recalled. “This is what I deal with every day. It’s not easy.”

She has the support of primary school teachers and people from the Girls Empowerment Network. They helped her mother and aunts believe that she needed to be allowed to make her own decisions.

“I’m lucky,” Ms. Banda said. “I believe if the Girls Empowerment Network had been in my community earlier, things would have been different for my sister, my cousins, my friends, and a lot of girls.”

Ms. Banda remained in school and earned a bachelor’s degree in development studies. She recently completed a master’s degree in project management.

She now works for Save the Children International in Ntcheu, Malawi, while running her own children’s rights non-profit in Lilongwe. The capital of Malawi.

Despite all her achievements, Ms. Banda realizes there is still much more to do.

“Some of the girls we manage to escape early marriage end up remarrying because of poverty,” Ms. Banda said. “They have no financial support and their parents cannot take care of them when they return home.”

She pointed out that child marriage is a multi-faceted problem that requires multi-faceted solutions at the community level such as scholarships, economic opportunities, child protection structures and “changing the way families and communities view the problem”.

Ms Banda is currently lobbying Malawi’s Ministry of Gender to set up a “Girls Fund” to help provide economic opportunities to those most vulnerable to childhood marriage.

For her sister, that first forced marriage didn’t last long. Although she is now remarried to a man of her choice as an adult, her childhood trauma disrupted her education and ended her ambitions to become a teacher.

Ms. Banda’s next step is to establish a vocational school for girls through her nonprofit organization, designed to provide job skills for those like her sister who have not been able to progress beyond secondary school.

“All I want is for girls to live in an equal and safe society,” she said. “Is that too much to ask for?”

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