Meet Malawi Female chief who has terminated 850 child marriages
Malawi female chief Theresa Kachindamoto was shocked when she saw girls as young as 12 with babies and teenaged husbands, and was soon ordering the people to give up their ways.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.'”
A 2012 United Nations survey found that more than half of Malawi’s girls were married before the age of 18. It ranked Malawi 8th out of 20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world.
Last year, Malawi’s parliament passed a law forbidding marriage before the age of 18. But under customary law of the traditional authorities, and the constitution, Malawian children can still marry with parental consent.
On the human development index, Malawi is considered as one of the world’s poorest places, ranking 160th out of 182 nations. Early marriage is more common in rural areas, where parents are eager to get girls out of the house to ease their financial burden.
She has a fearsome reputation of being Malawi’s top marriage terminator.
Thirteen years ago, Theresa Kachindamoto could not have conceived of ever leaving her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college in Zomba, another district in Southern Malawi. She had no desire to return home to Monkey Bay, a stunning cluster of mountains in Dedza District around Lake Malawi.
Although she had the blood of chiefs – Malawi’s traditional authority figures – running through her veins, as the youngest of 12 siblings, a woman, and a mother of five, Kachindamoto never expected to become a senior chief to the more than 900,000 people.
But when the chiefs called, she says, they told her to pack her bags and go home to Dedza district, as she had been chosen as the next senior chief.
She was told that she had been chosen because she was “good with people”, and that she was now the chief, “whether I liked it or not”, she recalls.
Kachindamoto duly donned the traditional beads, red robes and a leopard skin headband, and started touring the rows of mud-walled, grass-thatched homes to meet her people.
Many parents did not want to hear Kachindamoto’s pleas to keep their girls in school, or her assurances that an educated girl would bring them a greater fortune.
The common response was that she had no right to overturn tradition, nor, as the mother of five boys, to lecture others on the upbringing of girls.
Realizing that she couldn’t change the traditionally set mentality of parents, Kachindamoto instead changed the law.
She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish early marriage under customary law, and annul any existing unions in her area of authority.
When she learned that child marriages were still taking place in some areas, she fired four male chiefs responsible for these areas. They returned months later to tell her that all marriages had been undone. After sending people to verify this, she hired the chiefs back.
She then drew community members, the clergy, local committees and charities together to pass a bylaw that banned early marriage under the civil law.
“First of all it was difficult, but now people are understanding”, Kachindamoto says.
The difficulties she faced included death threats. But Kachindamoto simply shrugged them off and reiterated the law.
Over the past three years, Kachindamoto has broken up more than 850 marriages, and sent all of the children involved back to school.
Kachindamoto says she often pays for, or finds other sponsors to pay for, the schooling of girls whose parents cannot afford to pay school fees.
Through a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages, Kachindamoto checks that parents aren’t pulling girls out of school. She sends in outside allies to keep them there.
Last year, this included sending Malawi’s female MPs to rural schools. The girls in the community suddenly became eager to learn English – the language spoken in parliament. She has also been taking as many girls as she can from the village farms on trips to see the bright city lights.
Kachindamoto is now asking parliament to increase the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21 in an effort to break a cycle of rural poverty, which in recent years, has been exacerbated by floods and droughts in Malawi.