We hear about forced child marriages so many times in the news. We also often hear about the girls who end up having their lives ruined by this unfortunate experience.
In today’s episode, I interview a brave survivor of child marriage and talk about how this and the events that followed threatened to ruin her and her future.
Milliam is an amazing woman and though her life isn’t exactly where she wants it to be right now, this supergirl never gives up and never surrenders.
Full Transcript Below
Dee: Today in the studio, we have an amazing guest, Milliam. Oh my word, this woman, this powerful woman has been through so much in her 33 years of life. And I am so excited to have her with us. Hi Miriam, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell everyone, what is your favourite word and why?
Milliam: Hello, my name is Milliam Chilemba. I am from Malawi and I’m 33 years old. I’m so excited to be on this program because I know that I am a mess and have definitely been a mess in my life. But at the end of all, I’m definitely a message. As Dee has said, there’s been a lot that I went through as a young girl. As a woman, it has been so hard.
And it’s something that I need to share with you today; to tell you how I got to this point. There’s a lot of things that we need to talk about as women. We need to be strong, and we need to be supportive of each other. So that’s all I can say for now.
My favourite word is she. I like “she” because from the beginning of time, every time, the people that have been considered worthy, productive in life has been the “he’s”.
Even if we can talk about the past, like in the Bible, women were also referred to as he. So to me, it was a symbol that only he is something that is very, very powerful. Because of that, women’s voices, everything that a woman could do was not considered as valuable. So in my life, and whatever I’ve been through, I’ve been also going under that impression that because I’m a lady, I cannot do anything important, because I’m a lady, someone will just treat me anyhow.
So this is the time for the “she’s” to rise up, to have a strong voice and to defend their rights. To act accordingly for them to also live a beautiful life because they are also equally people.
Dee: I see I really love that because of course, I believe that “she” is a powerful word. We as women have so much potential within us. And you are doing something very important today by being on this podcast and sharing your story. Please tell me, where did you grow up? And what was your childhood like?
Milliam: All right, I was born in the capital city of my country, Malawi where my father was working as a general manager in a certain company there. I think that things in my life started going wrong because of my family background. In our family, there were 10 of us. My father had three wives in addition to other women. He also had four other children with the other women. So all together, we were 14, living under the same roof.
When my father quit his job (I don’t know whether he quit or maybe he got fired), I was young. All the wives were sent back to their respective villages. My mother and 10 children went back to the village. From that time, we never received any support from our father.
So here was this jobless woman looking after 10 children in a village. It was very hard. We went through a lot of hardships to the point where others couldn’t go to school. It got to a point where I think my mother, understanding that the responsibility was just so huge, decided that getting some of us married would be a relief.
So by the time I was 15 or 16, I started seeing some men coming to my house. I was young so I just ignored them coming because I never knew that there were some agreements with my parents about me being married off.
At another time a man came and asked me why I always turned away from him when he visited. He also told me there was this arrangement that I’d marry him. At this point, I was only in grade eight in primary school. So I was against that.
But since I denied him, my mother was furious. Maybe she thought that this man would be able to help. If I got married to that man, then maybe he would support the family or something like that.
Because I denied him it did not work out. That was the beginning of a rough patch between me and my mother. I was denied access to any basic needs at home. I had to find ways to get by and even find my own ways to get soap. I had to find notebooks and things like that. Life really became very hard for me.
Dee: Your mom was mad at you because you refused to basically be married off and handed off at a very young age?
Milliam: It’s like I cut off her source of income at the time maybe.
Dee: What went through your mind when you were going through this experience? Being basically cut off from your mom, your source of love and joy, what was it like for you?
Milliam: I wanted to give up. But then as I was thinking of giving up, I remembered that I never gave in to that man that was proposed for me. Maybe this meant that I was mature enough to get married.
So I found a boyfriend now of my own choice. When I found that person, my family was against it. They didn’t accept him because he didn’t have the material possessions that they wanted. By the time I was set to go to secondary school, I was denied this chance. My mother told me that she didn’t have the money to send me so I’d have to find my own way to pay the fees.
Dee: So you mentioned to me that you got married at 16 and that there was a bit of a struggle between you and your husband. Can you tell us what happened?
Milliam: At this time I was supposed to go to school but I had no choice because of the circumstances I went to live with the man I had found. Both he and I were still in secondary school so we were both quite young. There was no formal paperwork or arrangements. We were just cohabiting.
I ended up getting pregnant when I was in that marriage and then things changed. Due to my situation at home, the man decided that he would be able to do anything with me. Even if he did anything, I had nowhere to go because he knew that I could never go back to my parents as there was no peace between us.
So he would beat me for any reason. He would say all these bad things to me and it was really, really hard. I had nowhere to go and I could not go back to my mother because it would be fire. From here there was fire. I was really in a mess. There was nothing I could do.
Dee: So there was a lot that you were going through. You had so much going on at such a young age. You were married but you had an abusive spouse. You had nowhere to turn to. How did you manage to even get yourself out of that situation into something better?
Milliam: All I can say is that it was a miracle. I was having trouble with my biological mother. I was having trouble with this person that I’d just met. I decided that it would be better to continue having trouble with my mother because she may have had other reasons to do what she did, but it’s very painful to be mistreated, to be treated like nothing by someone that I’d just met.
When my baby was six months or so I went back to my mom, thinking it would be okay. I ended up going to my grandmother because I was afraid that my mother would not accept me. When I went to my grandmother, my grandmother said, Milliam, this is not a place to live. Go to your mother because no matter what, she is your mother.
To my surprise by the time I went back to my mother, she received me with a smile. I was also surprised because I was expecting to be sent back, to be shouted at, or something like that. Instead, she said Milliam, do you want to go back to school and I said yes.
I was afraid that I would have enemies if I went back to school. Luckily enough, a month later, one of my brothers was at the University of Malawi. He was sent to the school that I was selected to attend. Because I was his sister, I was able to go to school for free. They made an arrangement with me to have my son be with me in school even though it was a Catholic school and I would start paying back the fees when I got a job. I agreed.
Dee: So you actually ended up going back to school as a new mom. What were some of the struggles that you experienced being a mom and being in school?
Milliam: Firstly, psychologically because I was far from my home and women’s education is not considered important. They also believe that when you have a child, you just need to have to stay at home and care for your child.
Even people from my home, from my village, were asking me why I was going back to school with a little baby. They’d ask me why I wanted my baby to be raised like an orphan. So it was definitely a source of discouragement as to why I should not go back to school.
Going back to school many of the girls that knew that I was a mother with a young baby. So they would call me, maybe when we are in class, and say Mama Mama bright because they knew about my son. They also knew that I was a pretty good student in school.
So I would withstand the teasing, even from other teachers because I knew what I wanted. At the end of the day, I knew that I was not here for anyone else. I was here for my future so that tomorrow, I can be someone else. I really worked hard and I did so well in secondary school that I ended up going to university.
Dee: It’s so funny that you say you knew what you wanted because there are so many women out there who go through school and don’t end up finishing, because they’ve been teased, they’ve been ragged on by other people. But the fact that you kept going is such an inspiration. You knew what you wanted, and no matter what the obstacle, you kept going, because you understood the end of the day, that you had a dream and that dream needed to be fulfilled.
But there are some people out there who are listening. And I want to ask you, what is the one thought that kept you going no matter what? What kept you going when people were teasing you? What made you want to keep going?
Milliam: It’s funny to say this today that it was like a competition. Really, it was. I did not have a goal that I wanted to be a lawyer or I wanted to be someone else or anything like that. I just wanted to prove people wrong.
For those who were trying to set me back. Those who were saying, okay, you a mother, we are going to see if you’re going to make it, I wanted to prove myself to them. So whatever I was doing, whatever I was up against, I just wanted to prove those people wrong. Even though I had not set goals as to what I’d end up doing with my education, I wanted to prove that I could do it.
Dee: Okay, so you wanted to prove to yourself that you could do it. That is awesome. I love that because I believe the biggest competition we have is ourselves. If you want to be better, be better than who you were yesterday.
You want to be smarter? Be smarter than who you were the day before. I believe that the best way to move forward is to compete with yourself, not with other people. You did tell me that you know you have a nonprofit called Young Women’s Rights. Please tell us more about that. I’m super intrigued.
Milliam: Alright, so when I finished secondary school, I went to University. After sharing my experience with some people, I found out that some of my friends had had similar experiences. So from what we went through, we came up with it.
There has been a trend in our culture where a girl’s education was not so valued. What could we do? We went through this mess so what can we do to help these girls so they wouldn’t have to go through what we went through?
The three of us came together and we started the organization. The main purpose was to promote girl’s education. We targeted at-risk girls and the girls that were prone to dropping out because of poverty and other problems. Our work is focused on encouraging them not to drop out.
And for those that are still in school, we encourage them as well. If there are other teen mothers that have dropped out of school and think that they don’t have any chance to go back to school we help them as well.
For a few months, we provide them with vocational skills, so that they are able to keep going, so they would not be so dependent on men, because when a woman is not educated and there is too much dependence on a man, the chances of abuse are higher. If they are economically independent, then they are better able to stand on their own two feet.
Dee: So you’ve really been working a lot to really help women, girls, women everywhere to become better versions of themselves to be able to stand up on your own two feet, and be economically stable. And I wanted to ask you what have been some of the people you’ve come across, what are some of the stories that you’ve heard about, or you have seen for yourself that you would want other people to really know about?
Milliam: In my country, especially in the area that I come from, we have a lot of child marriages. That is a part of our culture that is triggered by what we call initiation ceremonies. When girls or boys mature such as when a girl starts menstruating, which can happen to someone who is eight or nine years old, they take them to this initiation ceremony.
It’s where they teach them how to be a good woman. They are taught what to do for men both sexually and how to care for children while caring for the house. A girl child is only raised to be a wife.
It doesn’t matter who she is or how old she is, once a girl crosses that threshold she’s ready for marriage. Due to the declaration, we have early marriages where 12 and 13-year-old girls are getting married.
Child marriages have really been increasing and many of them are forced. But because of our culture, this is considered normal. To us, it’s not normal, and because of that, we fight so that our girls do not have to go through this. We want women to have skills they can use for the future.
Dee: Oh, wow, I can’t even imagine at 12 even entertaining the thought that I’m ready for marriage. Hearing how all these girls are being basically coached and groomed to become wives at such young ages, it just breaks my heart, because I do believe that we have so much time for that.
Of course, I want to be a wife, I want to be a mom one day but at 12,13 you should be thinking about going to school, club activities, meeting friends and doing good in school. So it really does make me smile to think that you have started a project that really is aimed at helping these very same girls actually have brighter, better futures for themselves. That is awesome. But along the way, you also had some challenges. You came to Japan for a reason. Please do tell us what happened when you came to Japan.
Milliam: All right, when I was back in Malawi, I found a Japanese man. He helped us out with some of our projects, especially helping us with developing vocational skills for young women. He also gave us some funding to start the project. Then he told me that he could fund me for years and that he wanted to introduce us to many donors.
He promised that when I came to Japan he would introduce me to large organisations who would be willing to supply ample funding for us. I was super excited because that had been my dream; to have my organization grow and thrive. I came here in February. When I arrived I was told that I couldn’t stay here without having a job so I was told to teach at his school for a bit then we would be arranging meetings with companies.
So as I was teaching, we were doing our meetings, and I did some presentations. Every person we spoke with told us that they would be working with us and gave us the green light. I was even given a place to stay in that was funded by the company. I soon realized that the person who brought me to Japan only wanted to use me as a resource and that he didn’t actually care about me. I was upset because I was being used again.
Right now I work as a kindergarten teacher but I’m not really happy. My coming to Japan was for me to find partners for my non-profit so that I would be able to grow my initiative back home. I wanted to support more girls, to be able to rescue more girls from marriages. That all feels like a myth right now.
Dee: I know the things that you have been working on haven’t worked out in the way that you’d want them to, but I’m likening to believe that you’re not giving up. You’re not giving up, am I right?
Milliam: I’m not giving up. What I’ve done now is that, even though this job is just for three years, I am working hard. I employed some girls back home and am paying them from my salary. I do not want my work to die. I’m still bleeding on the inside but I will not stop until I figure something out.
So I’m working here. But I also use my salary to provide for the people that are waiting. I don’t want the organization to die until I can go back to my own country.
Dee: Well, that’s awesome. You’re like our very own supergirl because you are still trying, you’re still providing for people from what you have, you’re still supporting. So to me, that is a major accomplishment. The fact that you are even able to provide for other people in the interim, girl, there’s a message in that and I’m excited for what’s going to happen in the future.
I’m happy that you’re not giving up anytime soon and that you keep going no matter what. What is the number one piece of advice you received or heard, that continuously makes an impact on how you face each day?
Milliam: All right, the only word that keeps me going is that when you fall down, it’s not the end of the road. The next step is to keep you going and when you get up, then you can start moving.
Dee: That’s really important. When you fall down, so many of us feel that falling down is the end. We’ve just come to the end of the road and there’s no way to get up. But even when you fall down, you should still keep going. I love that so much.
You have given us one piece of advice that keeps you going. What is one takeaway, one big piece of wisdom that you would want to give all the women listening to you, whether it be years from now or right now, that will help the? What’s one thing you want them to know?
Milliam: All right. To all the women throughout the world, the only word I can tell you is to be yourself. Be what you are and be what you can. Don’t be carried away with what other people say or what they think about you because you are the person who knows yourself best. So the more you know yourself, the more you can act accordingly. Don’t let any other external forces change what you are.
Dee: Thank you so much Milliam. That is amazing advice. Never let any external forces change who you are. Be yourself. Be yourself unapologetically. I love that so much. To everyone out there listening, she went from being forced into marriage at 16, becoming a teen mom, dropping out of school, getting back into school, to starting a nonprofit, helping women all over her country to become better, and having obstacles being faced while in Japan.
Yet she keeps going. Milliam is an amazing, powerful woman with a powerful message. I am so so happy that so many of us have had the amazing opportunity of hearing her story. But Milliam I want to ask you where is one place that listeners can connect with you online?
Milliam: I am on WhatsApp. I am on Instagram. I’m on Twitter. I’m on Facebook. Maybe Facebook is the common one. So on Facebook is Milliam Mimie Chilemba.
Dee: All right guys, I’ll have all the information for Milliam in the show notes. Thank you so much again for stopping by. You have shared your story, inspired us and helped us to remember to again be ourselves and to never give up because you didn’t give up so why should we?
I just wanted to tell everybody out there that a little progress each day adds up to big results. And momentum is consistently making progress each day and one day you’re going to have amazing results and we are all going to be here to watch and see what happens.
This is Dee and you have been listening to She Is A Mess.