When she isn’t studying at the University of Malawi, 17-year-old Memory is shooting videos and snapping photographs of girls talking about their dreams for the future.
When Memory was 14, her 12-year-old sister got pregnant. After leaving an abusive husband, it was her mother’s job to keep the two girls safe and healthy in their rural community in the Chiradzulu District of southern Malawi.
"In a village where you see one of [the girls] getting pregnant, especially the young one, you feel a lot of pressure. People asking ‘what about you?’ Everyone viewed my mother as a mother who does not take care of her children, which was not true. I had to be different. I didn’t’ want to be like my little sister, but I knew that other girls were going through what [she] was going through."
The Situation for Girls
Extreme poverty in Malawi causes many families to invest their money and time in the boy because he is assumed to have the greatest chance of financially supporting the family when he gets older. Girls on the other hand are viewed as financial burdens and failures. They grow up with low self-esteem, dependent on men for their survival; the best way a girl can serve her family is to get married, ideally to a wealthy man. So it’s no surprise that one out of every two girls in Malawi will be married by her 18th birthday – one of the highest rates of forced marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Memory was determined to buck the stats; that’s when she heard about Girls Empowerment Network-Malawi (GENET). She became a volunteer in the girl empowerment program, leading discussions and producing documentaries to change the conversation about the value of girls. GENET’s approach to ending child marriage is completely girl-centered. Whatever they do, from the way the organization is staffed, to how it advocates for laws to protect girls from early marriage, girls are front and center. They build the leadership skills necessary to change the situation for themselves and others.
"GENET has made me strong and so wise about my decisions," said Memory. "It has removed the fear I had to explore the opportunities in life. Little girls look up to me as a role model and say, 'I want to be like you.'"
Eyes on the Prize
Memory isn’t GENET’s only fan. Local and national leaders are hailing Chitera in Chiradzulu District as a model community. School enrollment among girls has increased by over 50 percent since 2011, just three years after GENET received its first Global Fund for Women grant. Cases of child marriage are few and far between, and girls are speaking up when their rights are being violated.
Malawian law stipulates that girls can legally marry with parental consent at 15, but girls like Memory know firsthand, the pitfalls of early marriage. Child brides are almost always married to older men, and lack the standing to negotiate sex or birth control. Many get pregnant soon after marriage, when their bodies are too underdeveloped or too small to handle it. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the International Center for Research on Women.
GENET has its eyes on the big prize: reforming the minimum marriage-age law. They organized a writing contest in 10 schools, asking girls about their feelings on child marriage. They hosted photo workshops where girls learned to tell their stories through art. The 2,200 responses turned into “I Will Marry When I Want To,” a publication used in meetings with members of parliament and other decision makers.
Memory’s younger sister is now a mother of two and admires her as an example of girl empowerment and success.
"It has been such a long journey, and I never thought I would be where I am [today]. It’s because of GENET that I can say 'I’m here now!'" said Memory.