Ambassador Palmer’s Remarks at ZBS Best Girl Award Ceremony

I’m SO happy to be here today with Zodiak to celebrate the achievements of these amazing girls!  Congratulations to the awardees on doing so well on your MSCE examinations!  We all applaud your hard work and determination.

I’d also like to acknowledge your parents and teachers – and indeed parents and teachers all over Malawi – and to say thank you for wholeheartedly supporting your girls’ education.

I want to thank Zodiak Broadcasting for not only hosting today’s event to honor these bright young women, but also for your continued support of girls’ education and their future economic empowerment.  I know this is a years-long commitment.  Zodiak has provided so many scholarships for girls and women, even for study abroad in places like Harvard University. (Maybe the best university in the world.)  Zodiak founder and CEO Gospel Kazako walks the walk; there are women in positions of power throughout his operations.  There are many things I respect about you, Gospel, your entrepreneurship, your support for community radio, your ability to speak truth to power…..but maybe your commitment to the empowerment of women and girls most of all.

As but one concrete example of this commitment, Zodiak’s radio and social media campaign, “Lekeni”, is working to end child marriages before they happen and to emancipate underage girls from forced marriages.  I commend Zodiak and its partners for bringing more awareness to this issues.

As we stand on this beautiful St Mary’s Secondary School campus, I think it’s fitting to share the inspirational story of one of St. Mary’s former students.  As I prepared to come here, I learned the story of Memory Mdyetseni, who was committed not only to her own education but to the education of other girls as well.  But her path was not easy.

Sadly, both of Memory’s parents died by the time she started secondary school.  As the oldest daughter, she had to drop out of school to look after her five siblings.  But soon, her siblings moved to live with various family members, and an uncle adopted Memory.  Her uncle knew the importance of her education and enabled her to go back to secondary school.

Memory stayed in school and sat for her MSCE, finishing Form Four, before her uncle, too, passed away.  With no one else to turn to, she took a bus back to her family’s village.  There she was pressured to get married, but resisted.

Back in the village, she no longer focused on her education but instead was kept busy drawing water, cooking, fetching firewood, and cultivating land for tobacco.  But she volunteered to teach at a nearby school operated by Canadians.  However, the school ended up closing, leaving 24 girls without another option.  Knowing the value of an education, Memory worked with a colleague to put those girls through another school.

Memory’s resolve to continue her own education had not dwindled and soon after she was accepted into college in Malawi.  After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Memory and her former colleague committed to opening their own school for girls, and in 2008, their dream became a reality.

Called Atsikana Pa Ulendo, or “Girls on the Move”, Memory’s school has graduated more than 400 young women, most coming from backgrounds of extreme poverty and hardship.

Memory’s story has a happy ending, but the challenges she faced remain all too common for so many Malawian girls.  By age 18, half of Malawian girls are married and one in four girls have already had a child.  Another terrible, terrible statistic is that 39% of young women aged 13-24, who reported ever having sex, experienced forced sexual initiation – that’s rape. Being the victim of this type of violence certainly doesn’t mark you for life, but it is undoubtedly something that young women who have experienced must overcome.  We can, we must change this reality.

The U.S. Government is committed to championing the empowerment of Malawi’s adolescent girls and young women.  We know that education is crucial for all children, but especially girls.  Empowering Malawi’s girls, keeping them free from violence, and educating them are the best ways to ensure that Malawian communities and society thrive.

A girl’s education and empowerment betters everyone around her.  When girls thrive, families thrive, communities thrive, Malawi thrives.   Adolescent girls are the fulcrum of all of Malawi’s development goals.

On the bright side, as many of you may know, Malawi is one of the only countries in the world to have a National Strategy for Adolescent Girls and Young Women.  This positions Malawi to lead in this critical issue area, to inspire other countries to follow.  Full implementation of the strategy is critical and I’m looking forward to seeing the ministries the Education, Labor and Youth, Gender, and Health work together in Lilongwe and at the district level to stop early pregnancies and Gender Based Violence and keep girls healthy and empowered.

Under the AGYW strategy, the United States is expanding our programs to support the education of girls (and boys too but girls need some extra help):

Through the PEPFAR DREAMS public-private partnership, we support a whole-of-girl approach to reduce the risk of HIV – including scholarships, GBV prevention and post violence care and HIV prevention services.

We’re working with traditional authorities to prevent gender-based violence.  Many of them including Paramount Chiefs Kawinga, Kyungu and Gomani V, have been outspoken in saying violence against girls and women is not part of their culture and must be stopped.

And we will invest up to 65 billion Kwacha to expand access to secondary school for tens of thousands of young women like you, keeping them in school longer and reducing their lifetime risk of acquiring HIV.  The Government of Malawi’s abolition of tuition secondary school fess, inclusion of comprehensive sex education as part of the curriculum, establishment of Gender Based Violence-free zones at schools, and provision of youth friendly health services near schools will magnify the impact of this investment and go along way to empowering all of Malawi’s young people, and especially her girls.

And I am proud to announce a new initiative this year, that includes greater engagement with faith-based and traditional leaders, especially in the prevention of sexual violence and HIV risk among 9-14 year olds.

To all of the students listening today – Keep reaching for your your educational dreams.  Study hard and soon you will be on this stage – receiving awards or giving keynote addresses!

Before I conclude, I want to take advantage of having the microphone at this very important stage of your life – as one chapter begins and another opens – to – with humility – offer you a few words of advice:

  • First, don’t be afraid to fail. Adversity is unavoidable; how you overcome challenges is more personally defining than achievement. It isn’t failing that determines your character or even your success, it’s your ability get up and try again.  And, indeed, from those attempts will come real innovation and learning. That’s good advice for everybody, but may be even more important for you young women. This is also another way to think about the advice “always keep learning.”  Continuing on to university or other training is a great thing, but we need to learn every day all our lives.  Things that come with that are “don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.” Just make sure that when you do that you’re not asking for a handout, you have a plan and the person helping you understands what his or her help will do.
  • Second, be true to yourself and to others. Have integrity. Tell the truth. Stand for something.  Give others the space to do the same.  It may not be fair but sometimes, as women, you’re going to have do better than what might be expected of your male counterparts.  That’s okay.  You can do it!
  • Third, give back. The strongest bonds are forged in the service of others. That’s good advice for everyone – but I think women have a particular responsibility to look out for other women coming along. There are a lot of myths about women talking about each other behind each other’s backs.  The only people early in my career who I felt like didn’t help me were women who felt I had not had to make the same sacrifices that they did.  Don’t be those women.  Help your colleagues, fellow students, neighbors and family members be the best they can be.
  • And, finally never doubt your power to make a difference. My favorite quotation is one from American anthropologist Maraget Mead: she said “never doubt that a small group of individuals can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Once again, I want to congratulate the Best Girls on their outstanding academic performance and wish you all the best in your continuing studies.  You are an inspiration to all of us!

Zikomo Kwambiri!