When I ask petite Memory Banda whether she is married, her answer is an emphatic “No!”
It’s a loaded question for Banda who has spent the past few years of her young life campaigning against child marriage in Malawi. She has come to the Social Good Summit in New York in September to talk about Girls Empowerment Network Malawi (Genet) and Let Girls Lead, the organizations she works tirelessly for to stop child marriage in Malawi and beyond.
But she doesn’t have long to talk to me: She’s about to meet First Lady Michelle Obama, which she’s really excited about.
“Of course I have intentions to get married one day,” a vivacious Banda, who is almost 20, tells me. “But only when I’m done with school.” She’s keen to talk too about the career in communications – or possibly law – that she’s hoping to pursue but her current mission is more pressing: to stop child marriage in Malawi, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
Although the situation has improved there, with the banning of the practice in February last year, it is still commonplace for Malawian girls to marry very young. The legal marrying age is now 18, but with their parents’ consent, they can still marry as young as 15. Banda’s own sister was married at 11 to a man in his 30s and she now has several children. Some of her cousins too are in a similar predicament. And despite the legislation, child marriage continues – if under the radar.
“When I saw my peers, I was not impressed with the life they were living,” says Banda. She knew from the outset that she wanted a different path for herself and for other girls in her country and on the continent.
Central to child marriage is the brutal traditional practice of kusasa fumbi, which takes place in southern Malawi. This involves the sexual initiation of young girls at a special initiation camp in their village by an older man known as a “hyena”. The man has sex with them and teaches them how to pleasure their future husbands.
“Of course, it’s not his or her first time. And little is known about him. He could be infected with HIV,” says Banda. This practice robs the young girls of their childhood. When they come out, they soon get pregnant or married,” she says.
It’s no surprise that Malawi has one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world. What’s more, 10% of the population is HIV-positive.
But thanks to the efforts of Banda and the advocacy organizations behind her, the new legislation was passed. Other steps have also been taken to spread the message and change attitudes. Much work has been done with rural chiefs to put a stop to the kusasa fumbi tradition as well as child marriage.
Several years ago, over 200 girls who were trained in the Chiradzulu District of southern Malawi to persuade 60 village chiefs to make and enforce by-laws to protect girls from early marriage and sexual initiation. Now men who marry girls under the age of 21 must pay penalties to the chiefs in the form of goats or their land. Parents who allow or promote marriage of their under-age daughters are also penalized.
So far the efforts of Banda and her colleagues have largely paid off.
“Two or three years ago it was really bad. But there has been a lot of change in different communities,” she says.
Now, initiation camps have become a “positive” educational experience, where no “sexual cleansing” takes place and where girls learn about their bodies.
It’s no surprise that economic drivers are often behind the choice of young girls – or their parents – for early marriage.
“When you encourage girls to stand on their own they will ask you, ‘but where will I get the money?’ says Banda. “But I grew up with nothing. Still, I was able to move out,” she says. “I challenge that thinking and I encourage them to think not just of now but of the future.”