Thirteen years ago, Theresa Kachindamoto was a dedicated secretary at a city college in Zomba, southern Malawi. Her life was settled, and she had no intention of leaving the city or her job, where she had devoted 27 years of her life. But destiny had other plans for her, as the chiefs of Dedza District, with the power of traditional authority in their veins, saw in her a leader who could bring about change.
They summoned her back to her hometown, declaring that she was to be the next senior chief, whether she liked it or not. This role, however, came with a mission that she could not ignore: the eradication of early marriages that plagued her community.
The gravity of the issue became apparent when she encountered girls as young as 12, burdened with babies and teenage spouses. The United Nations survey in 2012 revealed that over half of Malawi’s girls were wed before the age of 18, ranking the country 8th globally for child marriages.
In a society where one in ten people is infected with HIV and economic hardship prevails, parents often marry off their daughters early to alleviate their financial burdens. But Kachindamoto’s determination knew no bounds, and she decided to act.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated,'” she declared.
Even though Malawi’s parliament passed a law in 2019 prohibiting marriage under the age of 18, the practice continued under customary laws and the constitution, allowing children to wed with parental consent. In remote rural areas, the community backlash against intervention was fierce, and girls endured traumas in the name of tradition.
Traditional practices included sending girls to “kusasa fumbi” camps, where they were subjected to sexual initiation rituals, teaching them to “please men” through explicit dances and sexual acts. Some even had to engage in sexual relations with their teachers to graduate, while others were sent back home to become prey for local “hyenas” – men hired to take their virginity or impregnate them.
In a country where one in five girls is a victim of sexual violence, UNICEF reported that the perpetrators are often family members, trusted and close to the children. This reality posed a challenging road to justice and protection for the victims.
Theresa Kachindamoto was undeterred by the difficulties and threats she faced, continuing her quest to end these harmful practices. She recognized that she couldn’t change deep-rooted traditional mindsets, so she took the initiative to change the law. Gathering 50 sub-chiefs, she made them agree to abolish early marriage under customary law and annul existing unions.
Her commitment was unwavering, and she didn’t hesitate to dismiss four male chiefs who had failed to implement the ban in their jurisdictions. They later returned, confirming the dissolution of all marriages, and Kachindamoto reappointed them.
Kachindamoto further mobilized the community, religious leaders, local committees, and charities to pass a bylaw prohibiting early marriage under civil law. Despite initial challenges, she persevered, and gradually, the community began to understand and support her mission.
Over the past three years, Theresa Kachindamoto has successfully annulled more than 850 marriages, ensuring that all the children involved return to school. She not only paid for the education of girls whose parents couldn’t afford school fees but also found sponsors to support them.
Through a network of “secret mothers and fathers” within the villages, she ensures parents do not pull their children out of school and sends outside allies to enforce this. To inspire young girls, she arranges for successful women to visit schools and share their experiences, encouraging them to stay in school.
Her dedication is evident, as she pushes for further change through a law that would raise the minimum marriage age to 21, seeking to break the cycle of rural poverty, which has only been exacerbated by natural disasters such as floods and droughts. She firmly believes that education holds the key to a brighter future, stating, “If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want.”
Theresa Kachindamoto remains resolute in her role as senior chief, undeterred by the challenges she faces in reshaping her community. Her determination to eradicate child marriage and empower the girls of Malawi remains unwavering, and she inspires change through the power of education.
Whether she likes it or not, Chief Kachindamoto knows that there is no turning back; she will continue her mission until her last breath.