We’ve never heard of a hero quite like Theresa Kachindamoto.
Kachindamoto is the youngest of 12 children descended from village chiefs in Malawi’s Monkey Bay. When it finally came time for her to take her place as senior chief – after spending 27 years as a secretary at a city college – she dedicated herself fully to ending the practice of child marriage among her people.
Kachindamoto never expected to become chief since she lived in a different town, had so many older siblings, and had 5 of her own children to care for. But her reputation as “good with people” led to her surprise election and her people told her she would have the job “whether I liked it or not”, she recalled.
While child marriage is a culturally accepted practice in the area and often the result of financial need, it’s also illegal as of 2015, though that did not put a stop to the practice since children could still be married with parental consent.
But Kachindamoto decided that she would no longer stand for a tradition that robbed young girls of their childhoods by turning them into wives and mothers long before they were 18.
While touring Monkey Bay to meet the people she would govern, she met girls as young as 12 with husbands and children.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.'”
During her time as chief of more than 900,000 people, she annulled 850 child marriages and sent all of the girls to school.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and a 2012 United Nations survey found that over half of the country’s girls were married before the age of 18.
There are organizations around Malawi that work to warn parents about the dangers of early marriage and childbirth, but parents are often so poor that they can’t afford to house and feed their daughters, so they feel like they have no choice but to marry them off.
But child marriage and pregnancy is a horrifying practice that often results in complications in childbirth because little girls’ bodies are simply too small to give birth safely.
On top of that, girls are often sent away to camps for “kusasa fumbi,” which means cleansing, but is actually a place for sexual initiation. These are places that train girls as young as 7 to perform sex acts to please their future husbands.
Kahindamoto took a hard-line stance against everyone involved in these practices, threatening to dismiss any chief that sanctioned it.
When parents protested Kachindamoto’s actions, she didn’t back down. Knowing that she could not change the mentality of the parents, she changed the law instead.
She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish early marriage and annul any existing unions in her area.
Of course, that didn’t stop some people.
In order to show just how serious she was, she fired 4 male chiefs in areas where the practice of child marriage was still occurring until they agreed to abide by the law, annul the marriages, and send the girls to school.
Despite receiving death threats, Kachindamoto was undeterred.
“I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school,” she said.
Kachindamoto also finds ways to pay for the schooling of girls whose parents cannot afford the fees.
And she is not one to sit back and assume all is well. She’s even hired a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages to make sure parents aren’t pulling their daughters out of school.
As for those who still balk at their chief’s new law? She’s unconcerned.
“I’m chief until I die,” she said, laughing.
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