Theresa Kachindamoto is one of Malawi’s Senior Chiefs and the youngest of 12 siblings, and a mother of 5. She was destined to become a chief. she lived in the city of Zomba working as a secretary at a local college, and one day she was asked to come home to Monkey Bay where she would eventually become Senior Chief of Dedza District.
She wore traditional red robes and set out to meet her people. The District sits between Mozambique and Lake Malawi. It s home to 900,000 people and the average family lives on a low income a month.
Half the population lives under the poverty line. The country also has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world in that 1 in 2 girls is married by 18. For poor families, early marriage is a way to ease their economic burden. It’s also a custom that many adhere to as a cultural rite.
On her first day in office, Chief Kachindamoto met numerous girls who were also wives and mothers. Most had dropped out of school and they told her that some girls are beaten by their husbands and others die giving birth. “I said no, this is too much. I must do something,” said Kachindamoto.
She then gathered the village headmen, church leaders, and NGOs. She told them she want these marriages to be terminated. She ordered that all village headmen sign and enforce an agreement to abolish child marriage and terminate existing marriages. Anyone refusing to comply would be stripped of his position. And the chief kept her word. She dismissed 7 village headmen, 2 of whom were women, when they wouldn’t comply. When they returned to say they’d annulled all child marriages, she gave back their titles.
In the last 5 years, Chief Kachindamoto has terminated 2,049 child marriages. She has developed a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” who keep an eye on other parents, making sure no one pulls their girls out of school. “If girls are educated, they can be and have whatever they want,” she said.
Chief Kachindamoto is trying to transfer her culture around girls though might take time. So she goes door to door, talking to parents. She has built unions and passed by-laws that prohibit early marriage and sexual initiation customs. When faced with severe resistance, she’s unfazed, shrugging off death threats and harassment. Chief Kachindamoto says the law is the law, and she won’t back down.