Before she was even 15 years old, Memory Banda was already a seasoned activist. When she witnessed firsthand how women in her Malawi community were subjected to sexual initiation (which typically led to impregnation and marriage), Banda felt compelled to change the traditions. It was personal for Banda: her 11-year-old sister was forced to marry the man who impregnated her during such a ritual. Around the same time, Banda encountered the Girls Empowerment Network (GEN). She says the organization empowered her further to take on the challenges that would come with fighting long-established community traditions. Banda worked with GEN on a campaign to stop child marriages, organizing storytelling gatherings for women to share their experiences as child brides.
Banda, now 19, went on to lead a successful campaign to make 21 the legal age for marriage in Malawi. Harsh penalties have also been established for people who break these new laws: men who marry underage girls must pay a significant fine in goats, chickens, and land; parents who marry off their underage daughters are now required to perform public service in their local community.
On March 28, Banda spoke at the Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference, taking the stage right before Hillary Clinton. We spoke with Banda before her talk about her experience as an activist, educator, and woman — and her wisdom is astounding.
POPSUGAR: Were you in touch with the Girls Empowerment Network before or after you realized how unjustly marriage was approached in your community?
MB: It was right before. That was the time my little sister got pregnant and was forced to go marry the person who impregnated her. That was when I had all these crazy questions in my mind, like, "What is our culture? Why are girls being affected more?" I looked at the situation with my sister and thought, "No girl has to go through this."
POPSUGAR: You started literacy classes for young women in your community. Was there a particular moment that inspired you to start those classes? Was there ever any pushback from other people in the community about these classes?
MB: I'll take you back a little bit. I imagined what my sister would become, because she wouldn't go to school [after she got married]. People thought that once you get married, that's the end of you as a young person. But I looked at it in a very different way: if a young girl goes into marriage, that doesn't have to be the end of her. And [I initiated] these literacy classes.
I also learned a lot from them. In the literacy classes, these young women who were my age — young mothers — were able to tell me what they were going through . . . the problems they were facing every day. They were going through a series of abuses from their husbands. Financially they were unstable and dependent on the man. That's when I saw how big the problem of child marriage is. I moved on to talking to my traditional leaders about some of the effects and some of the negative traditions.
All these child marriage issues, by the end of the day, you would find the biggest linkages are the cultural norms and cultural traditions in the community. You see that the girl child is not really valued in the community. What she is valued most for is "Oh, you're going to get married, your husband will support your family, your parents will get support." That's the only value seen in girls. When I saw that, I felt like I could change that focal point.
POPSUGAR: What was the conversation with traditional leaders in your community like?
MB: It was hard. It was a bunch of young girls and an organization in the community. You know how an organization can implement a project and after one or two years, it's gone? So the leaders were just like, "We'll wait it out." They were so surprised that we were still talking about this. Personally, the empowerment that I got was very huge. I did not stop because I wanted to see the changes I could make in the community.
The first time I spoke, it was very hard because I was very small. I was very scared. Later on, when people were talking about us as young girls who don't respect the tradition, it was very sad to be told that you're not respecting the tradition of the community. I looked at it in a very different way. I felt like if these people are looking at us in this way, that means we're doing something that is changing us and them as traditional leaders. That's when I felt like, "Yeah, let me go on and do this."
POPSUGAR: You saw some very successful changes directly because of your activism; there's now a legal precedent for when a woman can get married in Malawi. How would you encourage women to keep fighting through the bureaucratic red tape? Do you have any advice?
MB: Absolutely. As women and girls globally, we always have to have that mind of trying. I think that's what has been pushing me all the time. Sometimes, when I sit down and feel like I might not see any positive results from what I am doing, I think about [how] some years back I didn't even know that this was where these things would take me to.
I've always been that kind of person pushing for what I believe in. It's very important that women and the girls all over the world also have to believe in ourselves and push for what we believe in. Even if it doesn't work out, at least you can say that you tried.
"As women, we have the power of influencing. We may not realize we're influencing someone at that moment or influencing something, [but] we have that power."
POPSUGAR: Is there a specific moment or memory when you realized your own strength and power?
MB: It takes me back to the first time I stood up and spoke in front of my traditional leaders — and then when I saw the changes that were coming behind me. When we were advocating for the raise of the legal marriage age, when I saw the support that I got, I was like, "Oh! I can do this!" I think that was the point of self realization. That's when I felt like it is possible for a person to do anything to try to change something.
POPSUGAR: Can you think of an anecdote which speaks to how you have transformed how men in your community view women?
MB At first it was very hard. In my country, there are a lot of patriarchal communities. It's all over, but in Africa, it's even worse. In particular, in Malawi, it's way worse. We have been used to seeing men stand up and speak in front of people. It has always been the norm. But then to see girls standing up — it was challenging that patriarchal tradition in my community.
Men looked at us and said, "Oh, look at them, they won't go far." They were surprised to see that we were still pushing for this, and little by little, we gained their respect and their understanding. Men having been supporting us in this activism in every possible way. It's just amazing to see my fellow young people, the boys just being there and supporting us. When we were doing the amendment of the constitution, our group was actually comprised of so many young men.
POPSUGAR: What are you working on right now? What are your future plans?
MB: First and foremost, I'll continue my advocacy work for girls' rights. Apart from that, I'm looking for future personal development — because I feel like, personally, I have to develop as well. I'm looking forward to finishing school, college.
I was telling my sister that apart from me pursuing my education, I've always wanted to do law, and I feel like I still have to pursue that. When I sit back and see what I've done, it leads to policies and law. For me to go through all these social campaigns, first I had to understand what the laws said, what the acts said, what other policies linked up to all these issues around me. If I go into the field of law, it will be so much easier for me to advocate and work.
POPSUGAR: What do you think the most beautiful thing about being a woman is?
MB: That's a tricky question. I love being a woman, but I don't even know how I can respond to that. There's so many things. I love being a woman because I feel like I've always been an influencer. Most of the time, when I am around men and I pose my ideas, critics come in. By the end of the day you see that you have spoken something that has influenced them. The men think that they're the ones who posed that idea, but I'm the one who did that.
As women, we have the power of influencing. We may not realize we're influencing someone at that moment or influencing something, [but] we have that power. We have that influencing power, and with that power, we can do a lot of things. It feels like trickery, but it's not really a trick. With that power, we can influence a lot of things around us. It's the skill of being a woman.