From Malala to Memory, the power of girls

Article Date

10 October 2014

Article Author

Sarah Degnan Kambou

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This Saturday, October 11th is the International Day of the Girl, a day to contemplate the powerful force girls can be throughout the world – and a time to celebrate those girls who are forging a path forward to become the next generation of thinkers, doers and leaders in communities around the world.

Today, the world has recognized this power by awarding girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai with the Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest individual to receive this honor in history. The extraordinarily courageous 17-year-old has spent the last five years of her life tirelessly speaking out for the rights of girls, even putting her own life at risk when she survived a near fatal gunshot wound by the Taliban who attempted to silence her while on her way to school in her native Pakistan.

Another girl who has become a force for change is Memory Banda. An 18-year-old girl from Malawi, Memory overcame extraordinary personal adversity, an experience that she has channeled into being a force for change in the lives of other girls in her country. Once facing forced early marriage, violence and other abuse, Memory brought her inspiring story to captive audiences from around the world alongside the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York last month.

I had the pleasure of recently meeting Memory and her life is also a powerful example of what girls worldwide are capable of. Rather than simply accepting her fate and letting cultural beliefs about the value of a girl – or lack thereof – dictate her future, she organized efforts to teach other girls in her community to read, took part in Let Girls Lead’s campaign to end gender-based violence and forced marriage among girls her age, and worked with village chiefs to create laws penalizing men who perpetrate violence against women. Now, she’s mobilizing other girls to speak out.

And while the challenges that Memory, and other girls in her community that she helped, have faced are eye-opening, what’s even more eye-opening is that many millions more girls continue to face similar challenges around the world every day.

For far too long, girls around the world have been marginalized, with little regard for the ways in which they can be powerful agents of change. Memory recognized this and took a bold stance to change the status quo.

It’s high time global leaders follow Memory’s lead. And they certainly have the opportunity.

As the United Nations leads a process, alongside global leaders, to determine and finalize a new development agenda to reduce poverty worldwide over the next 15 years, we want them to know the cost of excluding girls.

Every single day that we fail to act to improve the lives of adolescent girls around the world, girls like Memory are at risk. Every day, more than 41,000 girls are forced into marriage before the age of 18, effectively ending their childhood and exposing them to a whole host of security, health and personal development risks and setbacks that have lifelong repercussions and can even be fatal.  Every day, more than 1,000 girls and young women ages 15-24 will become HIV positive. Every day, nearly 44,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth, putting their undeveloped bodies at risk of potentially fatal complications. Every day, more than 8,000 girls undergo female genital mutilation, a form of violence that violates their basic right to sexual health and often leads to chronic health problems.

The cost of inaction is simply too great.

On the other hand, we know the tremendous benefits of empowering girls. Doing so improves the health, wealth, and overall well-being of not only girls and their communities, but entire nations. Girls like Memory have shown global leaders that when girls are empowered, they can tackle myriad problems that affect whole populations. Memory is just one girl, but the “girl effect” of empowering just one girl and seeing it ripple across an entire community shows that we cannot afford to ignore girls any longer.

At this very moment, there are 600 million adolescent girls around the world. That’s 600 million opportunities to improve human rights, spur economic growth, and improve the social development of families, communities, and countries for decades to come.

This International Day of the Girl, the United Nations and global leaders must take a page from Memory’s book and make sure that every single girl – whether she’s from Malawi or Pakistan or anywhere in between – is empowered to control her own future, making the world a better place for us all.

This piece originally appeared on the Trust Women Conference website on October 11, 2014.