I'll begin today by sharing a poem written by my friend from Malawi, Eileen Piri. Eileen is only 13 years old, but when we were going through the collection of poetry that we wrote, I found her poem so interesting, so motivating. So I'll read it to you. She entitled her poem "I'll Marry When I Want." (Laughter)
"I'll marry when I want. My mother can't force me to marry. My father cannot force me to marry. My uncle, my aunt, my brother or sister, cannot force me to marry. No one in the world can force me to marry. I'll marry when I want. Even if you beat me, even if you chase me away, even if you do anything bad to me, I'll marry when I want.
I'll marry when I want, but not before I am well educated, and not before I am all grown up.
I'll marry when I want."
This poem might seem odd, written by a 13-year-old girl, but where I and Eileen come from, this poem, which I have just read to you, is a warrior's cry.
I am from Malawi. Malawi is one of the poorest countries, very poor, where gender equality is questionable.
Growing up in that country, I couldn't make my own choices in life. I couldn't even explore personal opportunities in life.
I will tell you a story of two different girls, two beautiful girls. These girls grew up under the same roof. They were eating the same food. Sometimes, they would share clothes, and even shoes. But their lives ended up differently, in two different paths. The other girl is my little sister. My little sister was only 11 years old when she got pregnant. It's a hurtful thing. Not only did it hurt her, even me. I was going through a hard time as well.
As it is in my culture, once you reach puberty stage, you are supposed to go to initiation camps. In these initiation camps, you are taught how to sexually please a man. There is this special day, which they call "Very Special Day" where a man who is hired by the community comes to the camp and sleeps with the little girls. Imagine the trauma that these young girls go through every day. Most girls end up pregnant. They even contract HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
For my little sister, she ended up being pregnant. Today, she's only 16 years old and she has three children. Her first marriage did not survive, nor did her second marriage.
On the other side, there is this girl. She's amazing. (Laughter) (Applause) I call her amazing because she is. She's very fabulous. That girl is me. (Laughter) When I was 13 years old, I was told, you are grown up, you have now reached of age, you're supposed to go to the initiation camp. I was like, "What? I'm not going to go to the initiation camps." You know what the women said to me? "You are a stupid girl. Stubborn. You do not respect the traditions of our society, of our community."
I said no because I knew where I was going. I knew what I wanted in life. I had a lot of dreams as a young girl. I wanted to get well educated, to find a decent job in the future. I was imagining myself as a lawyer, seated on that big chair. Those were the imaginations that were going through my mind every day. And I knew that one day, I would contribute something, a little something to my community. But every day after refusing, women would tell me, "Look at you, you're all grown up. Your little sister has a baby. What about you?" That was the music that I was hearing every day, and that is the music that girls hear every day when they don't do something that the community needs them to do.
When I compared the two stories between me and my sister, I said, "Why can't I do something? Why can't I change something that has happened for a long time in our community?"
That was when 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. I said, "Come on, we can remind each other how to read and write again, how to hold the pen, how to read, to hold the book." It was a great time I had with them. Nor did I just learn a little about them, but they were able to tell me their personal stories, what they were facing every day as young mothers. That was when I was like, 'Why can't we take all these things that are happening to us and present them and tell our mothers, our traditional leaders, that these are the wrong things?" It was a scary thing to do, because these traditional leaders, they are already accustomed to the things that have been there for ages. A hard thing to change, but a good thing to try.
So we tried. It was very hard, but we pushed. And I'm here to say that in my community, it was the first community after girls pushed so hard to our traditional leader, and our leader stood up for us and said no girl has to be married before the age of 18. (Applause)
In my community, that was the first time a community, they had to call the bylaws, the first bylaw that protected girls in our community.
We did not stop there. We forged ahead. We were determined to fight for girls not just in my community, but even in other communities. When the child marriage bill was being presented in February, we were there at the Parliament house. Every day, when the members of Parliament were entering, we were telling them, "Would you please support the bill?" And we don't have much technology like here, but we have our small phones. So we said, "Why can't we get their numbers and text them?" So we did that. It was a good thing. (Applause) So when the bill passed, we texted them back, "Thank you for supporting the bill." (Laughter) And when the bill was signed by the president, making it into law, it was a plus. Now, in Malawi, 18 is the legal marriage age, from 15 to 18. (Applause)
It's a good thing to know that the bill passed, but let me tell you this: There are countries where 18 is the legal marriage age, but don't we hear cries of women and girls every day? Every day, girls' lives are being wasted away. This is high time for leaders to honor their commitment. In honoring this commitment, it means keeping girls' issues at heart every time. We don't have to be subjected as second, but they have to know that women, as we are in this room, we are not just women, we are not just girls, we are extraordinary. We can do more.
And another thing for Malawi, and not just Malawi but other countries: The laws which are there, you know how a law is not a law until it is enforced? The law which has just recently passed and the laws that in other countries have been there, they need to be publicized at the local level, at the community level, where girls' issues are very striking. Girls face issues, difficult issues, at the community level every day. So if these young girls know that there are laws that protect them, they will be able to stand up and defend themselves because they will know that there is a law that protects them.
And another thing I would say is that girls' voices and women's voices are beautiful, they are there, but we cannot do this alone. Male advocates, they have to jump in, to step in and work together. It's a collective work. What we need is what girls elsewhere need: good education, and above all, not to marry whilst 11.
And furthermore, I know that together, we can transform the legal, the cultural and political framework that denies girls of their rights. I am standing here today and declaring that we can end child marriage in a generation. This is the moment where a girl and a girl, and millions of girls worldwide, will be able to say, "I will marry when I want."
Thank you. (Applause)