At first glance, it’s a typical scene: Two teenage girls lean their heads together engrossed in conversation as they munch on tuna salad on a bagel and fries.
But listen to Memory Banda, 18, from Malawi and 16-year old Achie (whose last name is not provided because of her age) from Ethiopia, and you’ll hear an earful about a lot of things you wouldn’t expect. They’re talking about how tough it is to be young and female in Africa. They’re discussing how child marriage and female genital mutilation are just two of the obstacles to girls getting an education. They’re commiserating about the challenge of getting health care and of finding jobs that will let them lead a better life.
But they’re not just griping. Memory and Achie each push for change in their communities.
The teens came to New York last week to speak on some panels at the United Nations 59th Commission on the Status of Women. They were brought to the conference by Let Girls Lead, a nonprofit group based at the Public Health Institute. (The Gates Foundation is a funder of both the Public Health Institute and NPR.)
I got to join the girls for lunch and conversation. Here is an edited and condensed version of our interview.
The two of you are so comfortable with each other, it’s as if you have known each other forever. But you just met last week?
Achie: Yes, we just met last week, and we’re best friends on Facebook now! We are about the same age, we’re both petite and we share the same goals to help women.
Memory: Also, both of us also like to write in our spare time — she writes essays; I write poetry. I write in both English and in Chichewa, which is my native language at home [which is Chiradzulu in the Southern Region of Malawi]. She won a prize for one of her essays!
What was the prize-winning essay about?
Achie: The topic was what would you see if you envisioned yourself as a satellite, what you saw and what you would like to change in the world. I wrote about how Africans need to stand up together and voice a desire for change and a vision for the future. I write mostly in English. Amharic is the language we speak at home.
What made you want to work for women’s rights?
Memory: In my community in southern part of Malawi the tradition is that once a girl reaches puberty, you go to an initiation camp where we are taught how to be a woman — how to satisfy a man. As part of that you go through a sexual initiation with a man.
And did you?
Memory: I did not. This was a hard decision. My family and friends were calling me a stubborn little girl because it felt to them like I was embarrassing the family. But for me it was a life decision. I knew that some girls come back pregnant, they get married, they cannot go to school, and if the men run away from their responsibility the girls are left on their own with the children. That was not for me.
But when my younger sister reached puberty, she went to the camp. She ended up getting pregnant and had to marry to the person who impregnated her. She was 11. This is what I saw and what I wanted to change.
What are you doing to help make change happen?
Memory: I had the idea to put up posters in my neighborhood offering free lessons to the adolescent mothers. And 20 girls joined the class. That led to my working with Let Girls Lead to help create networks for girls and advocating to help stop child marriage. … So if you ask me what is it like to be a teenager here, it was a struggle. You get anxious as adolescence approaches because you know what you’re going to go through.
Achie, tell us about your life in Addis Ababa.
Achie: I live in a nice neighborhood, and go to a good school, but this is not the life that many young girls in Ethiopia have.
Early marriage is also a problem in my country. There are traditional views about women, and they are not expected to go to school. There is also female genital mutilation. In my family there is nothing like that, but I would volunteer in organizations [to tutor] and I would talk to girls and hear their stories. Listening, you just have a feeling of how heavy a burden they are carrying and you cannot be quiet about it. When they share with you what they have experienced, you feel part of it and you want to act on it.
How has volunteering changed you?
Achie: I used to be a really shy girl and even if an opportunity was in front of me I would underestimate myself and not do it. That is how I was until I was 14.
At that time, I was working as a summer volunteer tutoring children from ages 5 to 16, and even though I was among the youngest of the volunteers, I was asked to lead one of the programs as a school coordinator. I was afraid, but I said yes, and it was my best decision. I opened up. I became less shy and more outspoken.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Memory: I have the dream of becoming a lawyer. And also journalism.
Achie: I plan on being an engineer, though haven’t decided yet what type. And if I/when I get the opportunity to study in the U.S., I would love it. And I’m also planning on doing more work for empowering girls.
What do you do in your free time, when you’re not studying or working to help women?
Memory: I like to hang out with my friends. I’m an addict of writing, poems about women, and young girls and coping with being a teenager. And my favorite sport at school is lawn tennis. I am the only girl on the team.
Achie: I design dresses. I don’t make them, I sketch them for fun. They are modern, but with a traditional Ethiopian sense. I also play basketball, even though I am short. And I have a blue belt in taekwondo.