When something goes wrong for an organization, it’s usually disappointing. But for Faith Phiri, who is the executive director of the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Malawi, when something goes awry, it’s devastating. Phiri spends her days fighting child marriage and trying to convince young girls to stay in school.
“We had a case where one of the girls, she is 11 years old, and her parents had arranged a marriage for this little girl,” she says. “Our network mobilized and went to the chief and went to the home where this girl was and they tried to reason with the parents, but this girl was under threat.” Phiri says the family moved away—and the little girl remained a bride.
In Malawi, close to 50 percent of girls will be married before they turn 18. Early marriage means these girls will most likely drop out of school, suffer from physically distressing early pregnancies, experience a higher likelihood of domestic abuse, and spend their lives toiling for their often-older husband’s family. GENET is one nonprofit organization that is dedicated to changing this course forever in Malawi communities.
“Looking at my own background, the struggle and pressures of my childhood, I made a commitment to support the girl child,” Phiri says. She grew up poor in rural Kasungu, Malawi, the second of nine children. She was expected to stay home and care for her younger siblings. “When it was time to go to school, boys were prioritized.” And at age 12, Phiri started feeling family and community pressure to get married.
Fortunately, Phiri’s neighbor was a schoolteacher who encouraged her to work hard and make it to school, no matter what. An excellent student, Phiri was offered a highly selective spot in secondary education—which came as a shock to her parents. “That was my breakthrough,” she laughs. “It was a privilege for a child to be elected.” Her parents, suddenly realizing that a girl could be smart, were supportive of her decision to attend the University of Malawi to study public health, and they even scraped together money for her fees.
“After seeing me succeed, [my parents] started supporting my younger sisters,” she says. In turn, all through secondary school and college, Phiri counseled her sisters and their friends to stay in school—and she realized that she could change the lives of many girls in her home just by being an example and opening discussions. And if her parents’ opinions could change, wouldn’t that be true for others? “I talked to parents; it was a social awakening,” she says. “[My status] enabled me to reach out to disadvantaged girls in rural areas. Some of them I personally assisted, like buying them uniforms, or maybe someone just giving them $10 to pay for secondary school.”
After graduating, she started thinking about developing a platform that would reach many girls. “A club of girls that I could encourage and motivate,” she says. “I wanted to get them talking about school and the viruses they face. They face a lot of sexual violence, but in our community we keep quiet. We just suffer.” She says she wanted a community where girls could encourage each other and share solutions. “That’s how we became an institution to speak against the violence against women.”
GENET was formed in 2007, and is now in place in 22 Malawi communities. More than 5,000 girls regularly gather to discuss problems and to encourage each other to stay in school and avoid early marriage. Phiri’s nonprofit organization runs HIV/AIDS programs and trains communities in better health practices. She estimates that GENET has rescued 20 brides from arranged child marriages, prevented 70 girls with wedding dates from following through with them, and returned 120 girls to school. GENET, which is a member of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership created by the Elders to stop child marriage, has even convinced eight communities to create bylaws that support children suffering in marriages.
And for every 11-year-old who is married, GENET has success stories. Phiri talks happily about a 12-year-old girl who was impregnated and whose parents were about to force her into marriage. “The Girls Empowerment Network went to the headman and said no, this is not a reason to marry,” she says. “The parents were encouraged to keep the girl, she was supported by the chief, and the parents agreed to leave this girl after giving birth and let her go back to school.”
Phiri says she is pleased to see that people are finally recognizing that girls are capable of leading rich intellectual lives that have nothing to do with marriage or childbearing. Of her work, she says simply: “I don’t take it for granted. It’s an honor.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.