When Memory Banda refused to get married when she turned 15, community members called her “stupid” and “stubborn.” But no amount of shame or dejection could stop Banda from fighting to end child marriage in Malawi.
Before the defiant activist launched her mission, Malawi had one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. More than half of girls there wed before they turned 18, according to Reuters.
But that’s due to change thanks to Banda’s grassroots efforts, which helped spur the country to raise the legal marriage age to 18 back in March.
While the 18-year-old’s resolve is uplifting, her work was inspired by practices she couldn’t tolerate witnessing.
When Banda’s younger sister was 11, she was sent to an “initiation camp,” as most girls are when they begin to hit puberty, Banda recalled during a TEDWomen talk in May.
While there, the girls were schooled in how to sexually please men and a man from the community then arrived to sleep with the participants.
Banda’s little sister was impregnated and forced to marry the man. She’s now 16, has three kids and two failed marriages.
“It’s a hurtful thing,” Banda said of what girls go through at these camps.
After watching her sister suffer, Banda vowed to end such pain for Malawian girls who she wants spared from the effects of child marriage.
In addition to losing out on education opportunities, young brides also face devastating health consequences.
They’re more susceptible to partner violence and sexual abuse, according to the World Health Organization. And complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women ages 15 to 19.
In 2011, those two organizations launched the Stop Marriage Campaign, an initiative that involved training more than 200 girls in how to become advocates, Denise Dunning, founder of Let Girls Lead, and Joyce Mkandawire, co-founder of GENET, wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian.
The bylaws came with harsh consequences to help enforce the ban.
Men who marry girls who are younger than 21 have to give up their land in the village and pay a fee of seven goats, a hefty penalty. Parents who marry off their young girls also face punishments, which could include working as a janitor for three months in a local health clinic.
To help see the passage of the ban through, Banda and her fellow advocates rallied at the parliament while the bill was being considered. They even went so far as to find out the lawmakers’ phone numbers so that they could text message their appeals, Banda noted in her TED talk.
In March, the legal marriage age officially became 18.
While it was certainly a celebratory moment, advocates aren’t breathing easy yet.
Supporters say it will also require ending poverty and addressing sexual initiation practices, Reuters reported.
Banda noted the need to corral all advocates, especially men, to help put an end to child marriage across the globe within a generation.
“We are not just women, we are not just girls,” Banda said. “We are extraordinary, we can do more.”