Read some inspiring words from UPI Fellow Vanessa Mwangala! Vanessa is here in the US for the next two years and has a dream to go back to Malawi and expand her girls' empowerment organization, Voices Awake. 

From a country where there is an outbreak of everything ranging from diseases, hunger, corruption, to prophecy, I got to experience my share of all of these. The first prophecy I got was, “you will be a great woman”. In my mind, great meant wealth and power, so I raced through life planning to make money and gain power by working ridiculously hard at school, and grasping every opportunity along the way. Then I met Jesus, who opened my eyes to the reality that life was what I was living when I was chasing grades and meeting deadlines. He made me listen to my heart and see the desire he had placed in me and my heartbeat went, “girls, girls, girls.” I looked around me and saw the plight of a Malawian girl.

She lives to be second best and her failure is not a surprise but expectation. She is defined by the duties of her body and her worth comes from her ability to get married and have children. Her qualifications don’t get her a job but her body parts do. She bears scars, and hides tears, and is told her gender is what proves she is weak.  I saw a girl who had accepted the oppressed role, and grows in it. As a mother, she makes sure her children are clothed and fed. She produces food from no money and hustles to pay her kids way in school. She sobs in the night, and laughs her way through the day as she tirelessly takes care of her husband and children. Through it all, she is still told, “You are not enough, you are weak, so dependent, you do nothing but gossip, a gold digger, the world would be a better place without you”, just because she is a WOMAN.

As I looked closer, I saw how I was this girl, and was being prepared to be this woman. I was already being told how to channel my thoughts, manipulate my body towards satisfying the man who would marry me. I was as good as the man who marries me and my ability to make my marriage last before I had even met the man I would marry, before I was even half way done with high school. As I experienced these things, I made up my mind to not be that girl, and not to grow into that woman.

As I got out of college, I decided to use what I experienced to empower myself and other young ladies who would not have the same opportunities and exposure that I had due to extreme poverty and illiteracy. It was time to break the cycle. I started a girl’s program called Voices Awake, whose mission is to awaken the potential in girls by equipping them holistically to fight against harmful traditions for the positive transformation of their lives. With the support from UrbanPromise International, this project started in August 2013, and we have reached out to over 100 girls in Dowa keeping them in school, providing basic needs and getting some out of early marriages. This year, Urban Promise has sent me to Eastern University, where I am getting an education in Organizational Leadership and receiving training from the UrbanPromise Health and Wellness Center in how to recover from adverse childhood experiences and trauma. The knowledge gained will be used to establish Voices Awake as a trauma-informed girl’s organization in Malawi and engage in deeper outreach to more girls. My vision for Malawi is one where every girl is adequately empowered to transform her life and community. I stand, live, and walk with these girls everyday as we change Malawi. And now I choose to believe that when that prophet said, "You will be a great woman", it was not because I will have a lot of money and power, but  because I will make a huge impact in other women’s lives.