By Refusing to Be a Child Bride, This Teen Helped Ban Underage Marriage in Her Entire Country

Instead of submitting to tradition, she worked for five years to increase Malawi’s marriage age from 15 to 18.
Jul 9, 2015·
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

When she was 13 years old, Memory Banda’s community told her that she was an adult. Like 40 percent of girls living in Malawi, she was pushed to attend an initiation camp to ready herself for marriage. Fully aware of what went on in those camps, Memory refused to go, despite being called “stupid” and “stubborn” by her family.

The camps are used to teach girls about satisfying a man, Memory explained during her speech at the TEDWomen 2015 conference. The final act includes what’s known as kusasa fumbi, or a sexual cleansing, in which a man hired by the community has sex with the young girls to rid them of their “childhood dust.”

In many cases, this unwanted sexual act results in an STD or unwanted pregnancy. Memory’s younger sister, Mercy, became pregnant during her time at the camp when she was only 11. Facing pressure from her parents, Mercy married the man who impregnated her. Five years and two failed marriages later, Mercy is 16 and has three children.

Memory rejected the cultural ritual that drastically derailed her sister’s life, but she didn’t stop there. Hoping to end child marriage in her country, she used her sister’s experiences to galvanize young women in her community.

“I called other girls just like my sister, who have children, who have been in class but they have forgotten how to read and write,” Memory said.

So, Why Should You Care? Literacy rates for men and women vary drastically in Malawi, with 74 percent of men able to read and write and just 57 percent of women with the same abilities, according to Human Rights Watch. Before becoming a child bride and mother, Mercy dreamed of being a teacher. As with so many other girls, marriage and child rearing halted her education and caused her to forget the basic skills she had learned.

As other girls shared similar stories, Memory presented the testimonials to her local leaders. Her community was the first in Malawi to up the legal marriage age to 18. When a countrywide law was presented before Parliament earlier this year, Memory lobbied again, texting Parliament members to ask them to support the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015. After Parliament passed the law in February, President Peter Mutharika signed it in April, upping the minimum marriage age from 15 to 18 for the entire nation.

But there’s still work to be done. Malawi has the eighth-highest rate of child marriage in the world, with children under 15 often married below the legal age.

“A law is not a law until it is enforced,” Memory warned, noting that enforcement is key. Her sister’s first marriage was technically illegal. Memory will use her voice to make the new law widely known in rural regions, hoping to empower women to stand up for themselves once they know their rights.

At 18, Memory is happily unmarried and believes that with cultural and political advocacy, every girl will be able to say, “I can marry when I want.”