Seeing her sister being forced to marry the man who impregnated her when she was still a child, stirred up strong feelings of resistance in Malawian Memory Banda. ‘That’s when I realised: this is not a normal thing,’ she says. ‘This doesn’t have to happen to me.’
In Malawi, 42 per cent of the girls are married before the age of 18. ‘As it is in my culture, once you reach puberty, you’re supposed to go to an initiation camp,’ Banda recounts in a TED Talk from 2015. In these camps, ‘you are taught how to sexually please a man’. Banda’s sister was just 11 when she returned pregnant from such a camp and was forced to marry the man who impregnated her.
Her sister’s experience made Memory Banda determined to focus on her education. She refused to go to the initiation camp: ‘I said no because I knew what I wanted in life.’ One of the things she did, was bring together the girls in her community to remind them of their possibilities. ‘I understood that no-one will speak for us,’ she explains in the documentary Bigger Than Us, in which she is one of the portrayed activists. The group lobbied with the community leaders, and their community of Nkwazi became the first in Malawi to ban initiation camps.
After that local victory, she decided to take it to the next stage. Together with a group of female parliamentarians, she managed to raise the legal age of marriage in Malawi from 15 to 18. However, she says: ‘A law is not a law until it is enforced.’ Only when the laws are publicised at the community level, ‘the girls will be able to stand up and defend themselves because they know that there is a law that protects them’. This is a slow process, as she described in a 2018 interview: ‘We have the law which was assigned in 2015. But we still see 14-year-olds in marriage. From 2015 to 2018, I thought there would be a huge drop but to my surprise child marriage only dropped by a small percentage. […] That’s when you realise that it’s not very easy to change perceptions, it really takes time.’
And that’s where her political ambitions come in. As she admits in Bigger Than Us, she even fantasises about becoming president. ‘If girls are never taught at a young age that they can be leaders, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have so few women in positions of power,’ she said in the 2018 interview. ‘It’s high time girls are taught how to be tough, strong and able to make their own choices.’
Bigger Than Us is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2022, where Memory Banda will be a special guest.