Malawi’s First Female Chief Dedicates Her Career to Ending Child Marriage

Theresa Kachindamoto

Photo: Nafarroako Gobernua via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, every year, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. This is particularly worrisome in Malawi, where about 46% of girls will be married before they turn 18, with some as young as age 9 or 10 being forced to marry. Hoping to offer educational and developmental opportunities to the youth of her community, a local leader named Theresa Kachindamoto has set out to put an end to child marriage and the results are inspiring.

Kachindamoto is a Senior Chief, a title known as Inkosi. This gives her authority over 900,000 people in the Dedza District in central Malawi. But she never expected to become a leader. In 2003, after working for 27 years as a secretary at a college in a different district, the mother of five was summoned to return home. Although tradition dictates that women can't be chiefs since they cannot go to war, the chiefs of the district named her to the position because she was “good with people.” And so, she became Malawi's first female chief.

Her concern about child marriage in Malawi came from hearing a heartbreaking story. “I know how important education is, but I admit that at first I didn't know what to do with this new responsibility,” she told El País. “In those years I didn't know what was happening in this area until one day I found a girl with a baby crying in her lap. I asked the girl to take the baby to her mother, but she explained that the baby was hers. She told me would turn 12 years old in a month. That day was an enlightenment, and I decided that couldn't happen anymore.”

And so, Kachindamoto gathered the council of chiefs from different communities. She told them that from that moment on, child marriages were prohibited under their jurisdiction. “If you do so, I told them, I will remove your title of chief, and you will become ordinary citizens,” she recalled.

It wasn't an empty threat. She has revoked the power of 62 of the more than 300 officials, only returning it to them once they commit to stopping child marriage.

In the 21 years that she has been in power, Kachindamoto has also dissolved 3,500 child unions and passed laws that prohibit early marriages and ban sexual initiations. This work has only been made possible by a network of network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” who keep an eye on other parents to make sure no one pulls their girls out of school.

While her efforts have been met with resistance by people who uphold traditions or, since the groom's family pays a dowry to the bride's family, see child marriage as a way to alleviate their finances, Kachindamoto says she won't back down.

“I’m chief until I die,” she told Al Jazeera. After all, she knows this is what ensures girls a better future. She concludes, “If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want.”

h/t: [orato]

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Regina Sienra

Regina Sienra is a Staff Writer at My Modern Met. Based in Mexico City, Mexico, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications with specialization in Journalism from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has 10+ years’ experience in Digital Media, writing for outlets in both English and Spanish. Her love for the creative arts—especially music and film—drives her forward every day.
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