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Amal Clooney, Melinda French Gates and Michelle Obama On Their Fight to End Child Marriage: Exclusive

By Samantha Barry

Every year 12 million girls around the world are wed before the age of 18. In this special report, Glamour's editor in chief Samatha Barry traveled to Africa with Clooney, Gates and Obama to meet the school girls and organizations carving out a different path—and witness the power of female friendship in action.

Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable, so goes the African proverb.

Never have words felt quite as apt as they did on a warm Tuesday in November, when human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, philanthropist Melinda French Gates, and former first lady Michelle Obama stood before hundreds of schoolgirls in the courtyard of Ludzi Girls’ Secondary School in Malawi. It was a historic collective of women and girls, all of whom gathered with a shared goal—to end child marriage in Malawi, a country where 42% of girls are wed by the age of 18—and a shared determination: to be stronger—unbreakable, as the proverb goes—together.

I was lucky enough to witness this moment, as I traveled with Clooney, Gates, and Obama to Malawi and then to Cape Town, and to see the power of female philanthropy and their commitment to girls' education. You could feel the electric energy in the crowd as the schoolgirls—all in freshly laundered uniforms—had found out only hours earlier who, exactly, was coming to visit.

Clooney, Gates and Obama had chosen the Ludzi school—in Mchinji, a town located in the Central Region of Malawi—because of its longstanding support of the nonprofit organization Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa (AGE Africa), whose goal is to provide education, mentoring opportunities, and scholarships to vulnerable young women across 47 Malawian public secondary schools.

In this Glamour exclusive, we delve into the personal and professional relationships of three of the most well-known women in the world, have meaningful conversations with local schoolgirls, and talk to prominent lawyers and activists about what it will take to, once and for all, eradicate child marriage globally.

Amal, Melinda& Michelle

Image: Thoko Chikondi

First things first: Yes, they’re on first-name terms with one another.

Amal, Melinda, and Michelle huddled together, in displays of easy friendship, is a sight to behold: the communal comforting of women in tears sharing their stories in the library of the Ludzi school. Their warmth in toasting one another’s teams at the end of the week over South African wine. A tight-knit circle of kindred spirits sharing special moments. (Obama even at one point catches Clooney mid-stumble as they walk on stage to do a panel in Cape Town.)

Their star power is undeniable, and they’ve each commanded countless column inches. Of the three of them, two are accomplished lawyers (one married a man who would become the first Black president in US history; the other, a Hollywood star), and one is a computer science and economics major with an MBA who has become one of the world’s richest women. All three are published authors. Obama with Becoming and The Light We Carry, Gates with The Moment of Lift, and Clooney, alongside co-author Philippa Webb, with The Right to a Fair Trial in International Law.

Each has put their stake in the ground in the world of philanthropy with purpose: Gates in health care via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Obama in education through her Girls Opportunity Alliance, and Clooney, in the legal world, with the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which provides support to victims of human rights abuses. Child marriage is an issue that came up in all their work—every year 12 million girls around the world are wed before the age of 18 (that’s about one girl every three seconds), and even in the US there are four states that have no minimum age of marriage as long as there is parental or court consent. The issue offered a unique opportunity for them to come together.

“This isn't just about one girl,” said Clooney. “You're sending girls into child marriage because of poverty, but if you want to break out of poverty, you need to send the girls to school…. I was born in a war zone, but I got to be educated because I was taken in abroad as a refugee. Many girls are not that lucky. I got to choose who I marry and wait until I was in my late 30s, which seemed so old to them, but many girls are not so lucky, and we want to play our part in making sure that more and more girls can have that freedom and that opportunity.”

Image: Thoko Chikondi

Individually the three women have the power to command a room. Together they may just have the power to change seemingly intractable social issues. And Malawi, which has one of the highest child-marriage rates in eastern and southern Africa, was the first stop for the trio.

“It’s crazy how rare it is for people to join forces in the human rights space even when they're working on similar issues,” said Clooney. “The gender space has been starved for resources from all of time,” added Gates. “People tend to fund things, even in the US, for men: We fund men's health at the NIH. We don't fund women's health.” But this collective is doing just that, undaunted by the depressing UNICEF estimate that, at the current rate, it will take 300 years to eradicate child marriage: “Change can happen in one generation,” said Gates.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

And as Clooney put it: “You can look at the statistics and they are daunting. But I teach at law school and I say to the students, You can either bury your head in the sand or you can have actionable anger. The real issue is when you don't have anger, and when you just have apathy and cynicism. That's what I see in many corridors of power, unfortunately. So if governments aren't going to be the ones to accelerate change, then philanthropists can do it and lawyers can do it, and I think we have to try and bring in the relevant communities.”

Through their unique partnership they, too, have created their own community, of which they are effusive. “These two are amazing powerhouses,” said Obama of Clooney and Gates.

It was Obama and Clooney who formed a friendship first, inviting Gates to join them for dinner.

“One of the things I remind women generally is that you're never too old to make new friends,” Obama said. “But it starts with your willingness to be vulnerable, and I think we each have been vulnerable with each other, not just on our work, but on other parts of our lives, and from that, you grow a joint heart, a joint heartbeat, a joint rhythm, and it just makes working together that much more meaningful, at least for me.”

Image: Thoko Chikondi

Their conversations “meander between global issues, to our kids, and gossip occasionally,” said Clooney. There’s always something to talk about, even on their long plane journeys together. “We talked during the entire plane ride, literally from Malawi to Cape Town,” added Obama. “We threatened taking naps, but it didn't happen.”

They’re kept awake, and in conversation, by their enormous ambitions, by the goals they believe they can achieve, and by the schoolgirls, the young women they met in Malawi, the beating heart of the work they are doing.

As Obama put it, “It's the promise and possibility. Those girls are powerhouses. How these girls are fighting, literally fighting for their lives and still able to bring such joy and energy. You can hear their stories, but you don't see it on their faces. They haven't let their trauma break them down. These girls are fighting tooth and nail to occupy the few seats that are there, leaving their homes, walking for miles and miles and miles.

“They break my heart in all the right ways,” she continued. “They just go into my chest and grab my heart and pull it out, and they make me want to fight for them.”

Image: Thoko Chikondi

Olivia & Donnah &Isabel

The girls, of course, are why we’re here in Malawi. To meet them, to hear from them, and to see their fight up close. Olivia, Isabel, and Donnah are all students at AGE Africa’s after-school program at Ludzi Girls’ Secondary School. Their youthful confidence is inspiring. These three girls have future leaders written all over them.

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Shumba, the only girl in a family of four boys, was among the loudest singers that day in the courtyard. With an infectious smile, she called on Michelle Obama to participate during a class exercise. Olivia’s mother, a teacher, has been a huge driver behind her continued education.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

She’s all too aware of how rare it is for girls her age in Malawi to still be in school and has seen a lot of girls in her village get married young, including her best friend. “Some of them are getting married, due to lack of resources,” she told me. “They think that marriage is a resource to them that they can find means to find money there, but they end up being violated, some of them are killed, due to the violence that they face in their marriages”

Olivia has different plans, hoping to one day get a scholarship to an American university. “Education is the key to success, going to America is my dream,” she said. She wants to be a mental health activist or a doctor. “I have a caring heart.”

Another doctor-in-waiting is 15-year-old Donnah Mwenebanda who was clearly disappointed when she told me about her latest math score: 87%, down from her usual 95% grade. She also has seen her friends marry at a young age. “My friend got married at the age of 12 and had difficulty giving birth,” she said. “It’s kind of depressing.”

Image: Supplied

As we sat down among the well-worn books of the Ludzi school library, she lit up. “To me, education is everything,” Donnah said. “If I wasn’t educated, I wouldn’t be speaking English to you.” She’s thankful for her parents: “They feel very happy, very proud about the fact that even girls need to get educated. Some parents find girls’ education useless.”

Donnah's parents were determined for her to have an education and sent her to live with her uncle, close to Ludzi, when she was selected to join the school. When she visits her home village, she’s often seen talking about the collective power of education: “Educating a girl is like educating a nation,” she said. “They will be the heads of the families tomorrow; they will be the ones that pick them up when they fall down.”

History lover and Celine Dion fan Isabel Nema understands that she is the exception to the norm. “Many girls are not educated; they go into early marriages,” she told me. At just 13 years old, she names a number of close friends that have already been married. A middle child, sandwiched between an older brother and younger sister, Isabel loves to tell the people she meets about her love for history, English, and biology: “We just learned about the digestive system.”

Image: Thoko Chikondi

She was beautifully vulnerable as she explained how the after-school programs have helped her tackle issues. “I learned about stress management and the impact of not managing stress properly,” she said. “Sometimes I cry. Crying can help me to forget about other things.” Isabel is an aspiring cardiologist. I asked whether she knows anyone in the profession. Her reply: “No, I am going to be my own role model.”

Dr.Faith &Chisomo& Memory

Grassroots activists are the soul of the fight when it comes to child marriage, most of whom are tirelessly working on the ground, day in and day out. We met many of them in Malawi and South Africa, including Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Memory Banda, and Chisomo Nyemba.

Dr. Mwangi-Powell, the CEO of Girls Not Brides, an international non-governmental organization with the mission to end child marriage throughout the world, has made it her life’s work to tackle child marriage. “Together we can raise the profile for child marriage,” she told me. “I want the world to know that we are not there yet. We have not ended child marriage. Every day girls are being married. One girl is married every three seconds. This has to stop. It is wrong for girls to be married when they are babies.”

Image: Tracey Adams

Speaking to Glamour in Cape Town, with majestic Table Mountain in the background, Dr. Mwangi-Powell celebrated the group that has convened—Obama, Clooney, and Gates. “This is huge,” she said. “These three women have huge platforms, spheres of influence; just lending their voice alone keeps this issue on the agenda. We want many more people to step up and keep it on a global platform. I have found anytime you tell a woman about child marriage they get inspired.”

We were also inspired upon meeting Chisomo Nyemba, the president of the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi, at a pop-up legal clinic with Amal Clooney and the Clooney Foundation for Justice in a rural area in the central region of Malawi. More than a thousand people had turned up seeking legal counsel. “Most of our clients seek advice around matrimonial disputes, divorce, distribution of matrimonial property, custody of children,” said Nyemba.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

These local activists bring a deep understanding of local nuance. Memory Banda, from Malawi, is the founder of Foundation for Girls Leadership. She has been an activist for a decade after her sister was married at the age of 11 (she became pregnant after a traditional initiation ceremony after reaching puberty). Banda led a movement that culminated in landmark legislation whereby the Malawi government raised the legal age of marriage to 18. “Child marriage is a multifaceted challenge,” she said. “It is rooted in cultural and traditional practices. It also has to do with attitude, behavior, and the way it has been normalized in our culture—the girls themselves see themselves as brides in primary school.”

Image: Tracey Adams

A new mother at the age of 27, Banda thinks about the girls forced into early marriage, including her sister who gave birth to three children before the age of 16. “I look at the challenges I have with a little baby, and at the time right now I am imagining having this small baby,” she said. “I am 27 and I am struggling, what about someone who is 13, who is 11, who is 15. It is overwhelming and those girls go through trauma. I can’t imagine how those children are having babies at such a young age.”

Banda sees the implications of having Obama, Clooney, and Gates’s focusing their funding on fighting child marriage. “I feel like it has come at the right time,” she said. “Child marriage is a pandemic, and I feel like with this investment doubled, it will change a lot of lives for girls and young women. I look at these women and I’m imagining a girl in Malawi, in South Africa; they put themselves in the shoes of these women. I feel like they are our role models. We want to be like them; we want to change the world.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

“It is so great to be part of something that is bigger yourself and this is this time,” she continued. “This is the moment to connect with girls and young women around the world.”

Story by Samantha Barry

Original article appeared on GLAMOUR US

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