Why Memory Banda Wouldn't Marry At 13

Photo: Courtesy of TED.
When the women in Memory Banda's Malawian community told her she had become a woman, she told them something else: She would not go to a sex-initiation camp, and she would not marry until she was ready. Memory refused to be engulfed by the same wave that had swallowed her little sister, who was forced into marriage and impregnated at 11 years old. If Memory had it her way, every girl in the world would be given the right to choose when — and whether — she gets married.

"I said no because I knew where I was going. I knew what I wanted in life. I had a lot of dreams as a young girl," Memory said in her TED Talk, which the organization released yesterday.
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I said no because I knew where I was going. I knew what I wanted in life

-Memory Banda

Thus began Memory Banda's campaign to stop kusasafumbi, the harmful practice of forcing girls into marriage when they begin menstruating. Memory pushed her community to pass a bylaw forbidding child marriage.

Then, she dreamed bigger and took that initiative to her country's parliament, which raised the legal marriage age in Malawi from 15 to 18. Memory is only 18 years old now, and already she has uprooted the discouraging history of a nation and set in motion its more promising future. In May, she spoke alongside leaders such as Roxane Gay and Linda Cliatt-Wayman at the TEDWomen 2015 conference. Memory brought the awe-stricken audience to its feet.
A 2007 survey conducted by Alister C. Munthali and Eliya M. Zulu found that on average, more than 40% of females across Malawi had undergone an "initiation or puberty rite." The researchers explain that in Malawi, puberty rites are part of a body of traditions "marking the transition from one critical stage of life to another." Known as "rites of transition," these ceremonies come between "rites of separation" and "rites of incorporation." Munthali and Zulu explain that while some Malawian traditions discourage sexual behaviors, in some communities, sex is "taught" to — or forced upon — adolescent girls.

On average, more than 40% of females across Malawi had undergone an 'initiation or puberty rite.'

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Where Memory lives, growing up was an invitation for rape. Girls (like Memory's sister Mercy) who attended sexual initiation camps were inaugurated into the adult world by a man who was hired to have sex with them. When Memory did not want to go to one of these camps, the women in her community called her stupid.
"I had a lot of dreams as a young girl," Memory said in her TED talk. "I wanted to get well educated, to find a decent job in the future. I was imagining myself as a lawyer." At 13 years old, her version of "smart" did not include a husband or a pregnancy.

"That was when I called other girls just like my sister, who have children, who have been in class but they have forgotten how to read and write...they were able to tell me their personal stories, what they were facing every day as young mothers," Memory recalled.

The young women galvanized, congregating outside parliament sessions. They sent text messages to their representatives, thanking them for supporting the bill to stop child marriage. They collaborated with organizations such as Let Girls Lead and the Girl Empowerment Network.

Today, these young women — wives, mothers, college students — live in a very different Malawi, one where smart girls are given the choice to wait to get married.

Memory opened with a poem written by Eileen Piri, a 13-year-old girl in her community. Piri's powerful words are:

I'll marry when I want.
My mother can't force me to marry.
My father cannot force me to marry.
My uncle, my aunt, my brother or sister, cannot force me to marry.
No one in the world can force me to marry.
I'll marry when I want.

Even if you beat me, even if you chase me away, even if you do anything bad to me, I'll marry when I want.

I'll marry when I want, but not before I am well educated, and not before I am all grown up.
I'll marry when I want.

Refinery29 is awaiting comment from Memory Banda.
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