Wonder Girls: Changing Our World is the first book to document the passionate and peaceful activism of girl-led groups from around the world—which are improving health, education, gender equality and the environment and stopping child marriage, domestic violence, child trafficking and war. The Ms. blog is running girls’ stories from the book all this week long in honor of International Day of the Girl. You can read them all here.
Memory, 18, Malwai
We three drive to a restaurant above the campus that serves lunch on picnic tables outside. While we’re waiting for our food, I ask Memory how she learned to be an advocate for girls’ rights. “GENET taught us leadership, communications skills, gender, girls’ rights, advocacy…a series of trainings to groom me, Grace, Toko…so we could stand.” Grace Kaimila-Kanjo, Rise Up’s Africa Regional Senior Advisor, conducted those trainings, which she calls “girling up sessions.”
“I wish we had these sessions with all the girls out there. I have seen tremendous transformation. The girls change. They brighten up. They become confident. They can prioritize needs and articulate issues. They become very active, working together on how they can surmount problems and deal with the issues they encounter.”
Memory recalls, “Our first advocacy was with Chief Chitera. We also talked to a Member of Parliament, met him face-to-face, then had a second meeting. From there, we went to the national level. It was actually the first time young girls had been politically active as a group.”
I ask what it was like to work with Senior Chief Chitera. “She is a great woman. A role model, not only for girls, but our mothers. She has taken it upon herself to cause change. She has said over and over, ‘I am not educated, but that should end with me. This generation should be different.’ She stands her ground and says ‘education first.’ When you are a traditional leader, you have the power to defend your relatives. One of her relatives, a chief, impregnated a teenage girl. Instead of defending him, she said, ‘You have gone against the law of our community.’ He was sent to prison. As girls, when we saw that, she gave us courage.”
Memory answers a phone call from her sister, and asks me to talk so her sister can practice English. Now 16, her sister has had three babies with three husbands, and been divorced three times. “So she has given up on all that,” Memory reports. Her sister is now living in Northern Malawi with their mother, who takes care of the children because—Memory is elated to announce—“I’ve been talking to her and she has enrolled in school! That is the perfect news. She stopped for almost two years. She passed her entrance exams. She went straight to secondary school!” Memory is using some of her own scholarship money to pay her sister’s tuition. I ask what Memory’s aunties said when she, herself, refused to attend initiation camp.
“They told me, ‘You are stubborn, you are stupid, you will not be a woman enough’—because if you don’t go to initiation camp—even when you are as old as Joyce, you are considered a child. Most girls think they have to go. Aunties tell you, ‘When you come out of the camp, there will be a beautiful celebration; your parents will buy you a new dress; you will get to eat meat and chicken.’ But more and more GENET girls are refusing to go.”
I ask how Memory imagines her future, and tell her that I will happily vote for her to be Malawi’s president. “Not politics. I want to pursue law because I want to stand up for girls’ rights. One of the discouraging things for girls is that they have no one to speak for them when they are violated. I want to be the lawyer who assists girls so they are able to access justice.”
The idea that Memory would become a lawyer makes sense. She is already an impressive public speaker. I ask how it was to address the U.N. “There were girls from all over the world. It was so good to see the leaders listening, eager to see what girls are facing and what the U.N. can do. Leaders and founders of big organizations were there. For the first time, I was given a chance to tell them what we young girls want. Girls could contribute to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. It was very much incredible. One leader said, ‘You know what? This has never happened in the history of the world, that young girls are changing a law.’”
The New York visit wasn’t all work and no play. When Alex asked Memory last March, “What was most fun about the visit?” the answer was: “Snow! Footprints. Crunching and sliding. We had never seen snow!”
I ask Memory how it was to present a TED Talk. “It was not just about practicing. It was about standing up and talking about your inner feelings, what is inside of you; what my sister faced and how that became a stepping stone for me to speak out on behalf of my sister, myself, and other girls in my community. By the end of the day, I saw that not only was I talking on behalf of girls in Malawi, but on behalf of a lot of girls worldwide. I thought it was just a story about my sister, a small story, but it turned out to be a larger story. It was so amazing to see people being inspired and motivated. It was beautiful.”
Memory is an Advisor to The Girls Empowerment Network, and attends as many GENET events throughout Malawi as her studies allow, then reports to the Board about the issues and trends that are underway. I ask whether her life has room for anything except studies and advocacy. “I have a beautiful diary. When I am alone, I love writing poetry.”
She shares a poem.
WHISPER OF A CALLING
You are young.
You are a young vision.
A young vision for Africa.
You are Africa.
Majestically she flows.
She flows like a peaceful river
Giving meaning and purpose to her home,
Pumping vital blood to her home.
The community looks up to her,
A backbone of a society
With a whisper of a calling
I call you.
Speak, I say,
Speak young woman.
Why are you quiet?
Speak for your daughters.
If you don’t, they will.
Show Africa that you are her backbone.
She stands strong because you are strong.
With a whisper of a calling
I call you
Breakaway from the silent tears.
Don’t you know you are strong?
Break away I say.
You are the young blood of hope,
A hope to all the daughters of Africa.
Between 2013-2016, noted author and photographer Paola Gianturco and her 11-year-old granddaughter, up-and-coming author and photographer Alex Sangster, teamed up to interview and photograph 102 girls, each of whom tells her own story in her own words in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World. One hundred percent of the authors’ royalties from Wonder Girls go to The Global Fund for Women to benefit grassroots groups of activist girls and women around the world.