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Saturday, October 24, 2015

She was sent to an “initiation camp” (sex camp) when she was 11-years old.

I have been in Taiwan for the past two weeks as a guest of the 10th International Youth Conference that Mr. Lewis Lu hosts each year.  A big part of this event is fundraising and awareness building for Heart for Africa.  This year Mr. Lu made an incredible addition to the conference called the 2015 Malala Youth Award.  

I am sure you remember young Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.  She is known mainly for being shot in the head and then rising up with a passion and advocating for education and for women in her native Pakistan.  She is who this award was designed and named after.  

One of the recipients of this new award was a young lady named Memory Banda.  She is 18-years old and is from the southern part of Malawi.  In her culture young girls are taken to “initiation camps” or “sex camps” as soon as they start menstruating.  The camp is two weeks long and it is a secret what is taught and done at the camp.  The camp was designed generations ago to welcome girls to womanhood. They are taught about sex, pregnancy, childbirth, child care, how to sexually please your husband and how to provide care for your husband and as many children as he decides you should have. At the end of the camp a man from the community is paid to come and have sex with the girls, and prepare them for marriage.  

Girls who had gone through the initiation camp were not allowed to tell the younger girls what had happened to them. After all, it was all a part of becoming a woman. Memory refused to go to the camp when she was of the right age because she had a bad feeling about it. But her refusal was met by a serious scolding by the elders in the community and resulted in her being ostracized because of her disrespect and rebelliousness.    Shortly thereafter her 11-year-old sister got her period and was sent to the camp.  When she returned home, she had changed. She was quiet, reclusive and afraid, but she would not talk about the camp other than to say that she was now a woman.  

Several months later it was discovered that Memory’s sister was pregnant – a result of the forced sex (rape) at the sex camp.  Even though the pregnancy was not of her doing, the family was ashamed and she was forced to marry the man who had raped her.  Memory was devastated for her sister and at that moment vowed to change the archaic cultural practices that invaded the lives and took away the rights of the girls of Malawi.  

Memory worked diligently with the other girls in her community, and many girls clubs were started through an NGO called “Girls Empowerment Network”.  On weekends they would meet and talk about human rights, gender equality as well as topics such as reproductive health and safety.  At that time the legal marrying age in Malawi was 15-years old, but that law was not enforced in the rural communities.   

That network of girls grew exponentially and as Memory said, “Once the girls united, we amplified our voices”.  Within a few years the girls were in front of Parliament and the legal marrying age was changed to 16 and then later to 18.  
Laws are a very important part of change in any country, but particularly when it relates to gender based violence or human inequality.  While the rural communities may continue to marry girls at a young age, there are now laws, and education around those laws, by which the girls can seek assistance.

Khalidi Mngulu, Mrs. Dlamini (the Ambassador from Swaziland's wife) and Memory Banda.
I learned a lot from Memory this week as well as Khalidi Mngulu from Tanzania who is the youth representative for the country speaking out on behalf of the Albino community.  Albino’s in many African countries are considered “lucky” (in a superstitious way) and if people want to get rich they often cut off body parts of Albinos (arms, ears, fingers, legs) and take them to the local witch doctor to be made in to a powerful potion.  We don’t see that in Swaziland, we see albinos being killed and sacrificed whole, not in pieces.

Oh Africa, my beloved Africa.  Why am I drawn to you so?

The students at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ready to present the challenges of their countries.
I am forever changed by the young people I met this week, and while the things I learned will never be forgotten, I am more hopeful that the youth of today is preparing a revolution of change.  As a dear friend said to me this week, “Something’s gotta give."

Live from the Hong Kong airport ... I am going home.  


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