VOLUME 7, NUMBER 3
When Memory Bandera
'04 packed her bags and left her native Zimbabwe to enroll at
Mount Holyoke in the fall of 2000, she could not leave behind
the plight of girls in her native country. Growing up in Chitungwiza,
a suburb of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, Bandera was only too aware
of the gender imbalances in all aspects of life in that African
nation. Three out of ten girls are sexually abused, many of them
by uncles or other family members, according to a government report.
In some parts of the country, girls are considered to be marriageable
at the age of twelve. The cost of education, while nominal, is
still too much for some families; forced to choose, they give
priority to male children, who will have greater earning opportunities.
Those girls who do get sent to school can face intimidation by
boys. And too many of those who do not go to school face rape,
early marriages, pregnancy, and pressure to engage in prostitution.
The problems are most acute in rural Zimbabwe, Bandera says.
Determined that girls should have
better futures, Bandera in 1999 joined with her high school teacher and nine
classmates to form a discussion group that became the Girl Child Network, a
nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the empowerment of girls in Zimbabwe
through a broad variety of activities and public events designed to encourage
a change in society's attitudes. "Most of these girls don't have any opportunities,"
Bandera says. "I'm trying to get them to have equal opportunities." The idea
quickly took root. Today, the Girl Child Network numbers fifty clubs and more
than 3,000 members at schools across Zimbabwe. In July, the group cut the ribbon
for Girls Empowerment Village, a "safe village" in Rusape, a town in rural Zimbabwe,
where girls ages eight to sixteen can find refuge and help. In August, the organization
will open another Safe Village in Hawange.
Though 7,800 miles and seven time
zones from Zimbabwe, Bandera, an international relations major specializing
in the developmental issues affecting women and children, was determined to
do what she could to continue building the organization through speaking, writing,
serving as a liaison between the trust and its sponsors in the United States,
and acting as an adviser to students back home. In April 2002, through the sponsorship
of the College's Protestant Council of Deacons, she brought her message to fellow
Mount Holyoke students, giving a talk on the conditions for girls in Zimbabwe
and launching a drive that resulted in the shipment of twenty cartons of girls'
clothing to the safe village.
It was not long before thank-you
notes began arriving from the safe village, addressed to Bandera and other Mount
Holyoke students. That led to another idea: an ongoing letter exchange between
the College and Girls Empowerment Village. Many of the girls had expressed curiosity
about what life at college is like, and Bandera and her fellow Council of Deacons
members saw an opportunity to encourage the girls to raise their aspirations.
Inviting all Mount Holyoke students to take part, the council in November mailed
an envelope stuffed with thirty letters from South Hadley to Rusape and Chitungwiza.
In May of last year in recognition
of her commitment and efforts, Bandera was named to the Girl Child Network's
board of trustees, becoming the only board member living full-time in the United
States. While attending meetings is not possible, Bandera participates by email,
reading the agendas and responding to the minutes.
As a newly inducted member of the
Women as Role Models Museum of Achievements at Girls Empowerment Village, she
joins the ranks of those held out as examples of women who have "made it to
the top." Bandera, who was drawn to Mount Holyoke by her desire for both strong
leadership skills and a first-rate liberal arts education, "is a great inspiration
to many women and girls in Zimbabwe," says the trust's director, Hazviperi Betty
Makoni. "As a young girl, she could easily have given up for love of self and
many other things, but with vision and passion she helped the organization to
grow. Memory is a visionary leader. I say, go, go, go, Memory! The sky is the