Memory Banda is one of the lucky ones.
The 18-year-old girl managed to escape the cycle that turns half the girls in her southern African nation into brides, and often mothers, by her age.
But her sister Mercy was not so lucky.
When only 11, Mercy got pregnant during a traditional sexual âcleansing ceremonyâ that is intended to prepare pubescent girls for womanhood and marriage. Mercy was forced to marry the man who impregnated her, but the marriage didnât last. Nor did the next one. NowÂ 16, Mercy already has three children and little education, her dreams of becoming a teacher put on hold.
A few years ago, Memory encountered Girls Empowerment Network, a Malawi-based NGO that had been trying for years to get lawmakers to address the issue of child marriage. Only a teenager herself, Memory could get other girls in her village to open up. The groupâs writing workshops resulted in a remarkable set of testimonials called âI Will Marry When I Want To!âÂ Memory and the group brought a crucial perspective to Malawiâs debate over child marriage: that of children themselves.
Memory believes the testimonials forced lawmakers to end their denial of how widespread child marriage had become in this tradition-bound country. âThey were caught,â she says. She went on to become something of a lobbyist for a new law to raise the legal age of marriage in Malawi to 18. After five years of debate, itÂ passedÂ this past February.
Now, Memory says, enforcement is key. âIt will make a big difference and a big impact, but if and only if there are better ways of implementing the program so that more and more people are reached concerning the new law.â
After all, her sister’s marriage when she was 11 was also illegal, but that didnât stop the damage from being done. Memory is urging her sister not to give up on her stolen aspirations to become a teacher. âI believe she still has a chance of going back to school,â she says.
And Memory sees a new openness forming in pockets of Malawiâs society as she tries to educate girls about sexuality and their rights. She knows her sister is determined not to let her children go through what she did. Mercyâs oldest daughter is now five, almost half the age Mercy was when she got married off.
âThe little girl knows what the mom went through. And I am pretty sure she also has greater hopes for her own future,â Memory says.