Early marriage and pregnancy is not an abstract fate to Memory. It is the fate of a real girl; a girl who was sent to an ‘initiation camp’ at age 11 – where girls are prepared for marriage by learning how to sexually please men. A girl who fell pregnant at that camp and was forced to marry.
That girl was Memory’s younger sister. And it was not just Memory’s sister, but her cousins, friends and classmates as well. For girls in Malawi, child marriage was a fact of life. Until only a few years ago, Malawi had one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. The consequences of child marriage are well known – medical complications from early birth, sexual abuse and violence.
But for Memory the situation was more personal – she longed for an education and a better life. When she said no to marriage at age 13 she was called “stupid” and “stubborn”, but she was not deterred.
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. I knew that one day I would contribute something, a little something, to my community.
As it turned out, she contributed far more than just a little something. Memory joined the Stop Child Marriage Campaign and became an advocate for Malawi’s girls. She listened to the stories of other young girls, lobbied village chiefs and politicians, and ultimately helped win a stunning victory – Malawi’s government banned child marriage by increasing the age of marriage from 15 to 18.
Age is a crucial factor in Memory’s story, and in the fight against child marriage. Laws that put an end to child marriage can only be enforced when there are clear records of a child’s birth. In Malawi – and in many countries around the world – many children do not have those records, so they remain unprotected by these laws and vulnerable to an early and unwanted marriage. Critically, absence of birth registration and personal identification in Malawi has significantly contributed to child trafficking, child labor and other forms of abuse.
According to UNICEF less than 3% of children’s births are being registered with an official registration authority in Malawi. The culprits are customary traditions, lack of awareness or simply the prohibitive costs of travel to centralized registration outlets.
However, with the advent of distributed ledger technologies, such as the blockchain, it is possible to overcome these obstacles. Every child’s birth should be recognized and no child should become “invisible”, or forced to live someone else’s life choices.
Today, Memory Banda is finishing the education that she fought so hard to get. And she is making sure that she is not the only one – she has now helped over 500 girls, including her younger sister, to get back into school. It is part of her ongoing mentorship program, which not only encourages girls to stay in, or return to, school, but also challenges them to take on leadership roles and solve problems in their communities. Memory is reminding everyone that girls can be so much more than just brides.
We are not just girls. We are extraordinary girls. We can do anything we want, if we have our identity recognized.