Fighting Child Marriage and Sex Abuse: A Talk with TED Speaker Memory Banda

12/07/16

Traditionally in Malawi, it’s taboo to talk about sex. But recently this country has been front and center in a worldwide discussion about cultural practices that promote sexual abuse and early marriage.

 
Here, TED Talks speaker Memory Banda, who grew up in a Malawian village, and Debbie Clark, COTN’s founder, who’s spent the last 20 years protecting and empowering children in Malawi and other developing countries, tell their first-hand stories of this issue. And why they believe a major cultural shift in favor of girls' rights and protection is on the horizon.
 
            To hear Memory Banda and Debbie Clark's full interview, listen to COTN's podcast, Beyond the Village.
 

Memory’s Story

Memory Banda, a university student from Malawi, walks onto the TED Talks stage in a yellow dress and begins by reciting this poem written by her friend:
"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."
 
To understand this warrior cry, you must hear Memory’s story. It starts when she is about 10 years old.
 
Memory’s younger sister hit puberty early. Following village tradition, her sister was sent to an initiation camp. Girls as young as 11 years old go to this camp to learn things like how to do household chores, how to take care of a baby, sort of like a home economics class. But the education doesn’t stop there. The girls must also learn how to sexually please a man.
 
The highlight of camp is a day called "Very Special Day,” when a man hired by the community has sex with the girls. Tragically, this tradition results in trauma, pregnancy, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.
 
As a young girl herself, Memory says she thought going to an initiation camp was normal. Before Memory’s sister left for camp, they were close. But when her sister returned, she was different and the girls grew apart. By age 16, Memory’s sister had three children and two failed marriages.
 
When it was Memory’s turn to go to camp she did the unthinkable—she refused to go. She says every day after that, women would tell her, "You are a stupid girl. Stubborn. You do not respect the traditions of our society, of our community. Look at you, you're all grown up. Your little sister has a baby. What about you?"
 
“That was the music that I was hearing every day,” says Memory. Around this same time a nonprofit called Girls Empowerment Network came into her community. They talked about childhood marriages and human rights in a way Memory hadn’t heard before. It boosted her self-esteem, gave her hope. Memory believed she could do something better for her community than marrying young. She dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
 
Debbie Clark says one of the major barriers to girls speaking out is the heavy shame placed upon them by their families. Often, if a girl pursues legal action, she may hurt her chances of a future marriage.
 
Memory and a group of like-minded girls in her the village pulled together, determined to stand up for their rights. If one of the girls' parents tried to force them into early marriage, they’d run to the nonprofit for help. This caused an uproar in the community.
 
Eventually the girls influenced the leaders to change the community’s legal marriage age from 15 to 18 years old. Sexual initiation performed by a local man in the community was banned from camps and replaced by sexual protective health education. Anyone caught violating these new laws was forced to give up a cow or goat, a very heavy fine in this community.
 
But Memory didn’t stop there. Along with a group of like-minded women, she petitioned the Malawi government to change the legal age of marriage nationwide. In her TED Talk, she describes how they sent text messages to government representatives asking for help. Their efforts paid off. The national law of legal marriage age was changed to 18 years old. But the issue is far from over.
 

How COTN is Protecting and Empowering Girls

Although the new country-wide law can protect girls, the girls must know it exists and they must be willing to speak. According to a survey done by UNICEF, one in five Malawian girls is a victim of sexual violence, as is one in seven boys. The survey found that most abusers are people that children trust and are related to, such as fathers, uncles, stepfathers. 
 
One of the great barriers girls face is the fact that the perpetrators are often people in positions of power. With little to no education and few opportunities to earn a living, these young girls have extremely limited options.
 
“Lately, more than ever, I have been passionate about driving towards changing the tide,” says Debbie Clark, COTN’s founder. “Mostly because, even after 20 years, I am still coming to understand the depth of the issues.” Debbie explains girls are facing these same issues all over Africa.
 
Every day, young girls face the threat of sexual assault on their walk to and from school, especially when crossing fields or along jungle paths. Even in school, girls must defend themselves against male teachers. And girls who lack basic necessities like medical or school fees are vulnerable to predators offering to trade sex for necessities. “There are so many challenges but our girls are standing up against this,” Debbie says. “Education is key.”
 
A graduate from COTN's International Christian Academy celebrates with her family. "Education is key" to overcoming the challenges surrounding girls' rights in Malawi, says COTN Founder Debbie Clark.
 

Seeing Real Progress

Twenty years ago, Debbie says it was extremely rare to see girls finish high school. Now, she says when you walk through a public school or a COTN classroom, you see more girls in attendance. Unfortunately, the higher the grade gets, the fewer girls you see. Still, Debbie says she has seen real progress.
 
Girls in COTN’s care don’t have to face these obstacles alone. Debbie says more and more girls are opening up to her and the staff about the problems they are facing. Thanks to sponsorship, these girls don’t have to find a way to provide for basic needs like food, school fees and supplies, and medical care. On COTN’s school campus, the girls' dormitory provides a safe home for students who come from far away. 
 
COTN has seen more and more girls graduate and even go on to university in recent years, which is a huge accomplishment for female students. These students are often the first in their family to earn a college degree. Young girls in COTN’s care look up to young women like Memory Banda, who spoke on COTN’s Njewa campus in Malawi in January. They also look up to Olivia Potani, a young woman who grew up in COTN’s children’s home, graduated from university, fell in love with a young man, presented him to her house parents (as Malawian culture dictates), and got married in a beautiful ceremony last year.
 
Change is in the air. All over Malawi, Memory says more than ever nonprofits are working to teach young girls about their rights and teach young boys the importance of caring for their families and honoring the women in their lives. Recently a female chief, Theresa Kachindamoto, made headlines. In three short years she broke up 850 child marriages in her chiefdom and has seen to it that all those girls were able to go back to school.
 
And on COTN’s campus, we’ve started our own discussion. Children are going through a 30-day course called God’s Plan for Sexuality, which explains God’s design for sex and marriage.
 
Memory believes she’ll see this major shift in girls' rights in her lifetime, and Debbie agrees. There’s a strong indication they are right. Change is in the air.
 
                                                Click here to sponsor a girl in Malawi today!