In Southern Malawi, Chief Theresa Kachindaamoto is known as the "marriage terminator." In just three years, the chief to over 900,000 Malawian people has put an end to over 850 child marriages.
She is protecting girls, empowering them and making her entire community healthier.
Theresa never thought she would influence so many people. The youngest in a family of twelve, she was perfectly happy continuing her nearly thirty-year career as a secretary at a college in Zomba, Malawi. Thankfully for thousands of girls, she has chieftain blood. Meaning she was considered by the people living in her home district in Monkey Bay at the southern tip of Lake Malawi to be the next chief. To her shock, she was chosen to be the next district chief taking on the responsibility of guiding hundreds of thousands of people.
Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries -- 50.7 percent of the country’s population lives under the poverty line according to UNDP. For Chief Katchindamoto she could have begun tackling a range of issues from challenges with food and hunger to sustainable agriculture. Instead, the first thing she did when she arrived back home was stop 12-year-old children being married off.
Child Marriage in Malawi
Child marriage is one of the biggest factors holding back girls around the world. When young girls are forced to marry before completing an education their own opportunities are limited. This limits the potential for the individual gir and hurts social and economic progress for their community and country.
According to a study by the United Nations in 2012 over 50 percent of girls in Malawi are married before the age of eighteen.
These are scary stats. Though not frightening enough to deter Chief Kachindamoto.
When Chief Kachindamoto returned to Monkey Bay, she saw more than just young girls being married. She saw countless young, adolescent girls with babies of their own.
Empowered through her education and potentially some extra genetic courage from chieftain ancestry, Theresa was not phased at the obstacle of tradition.
She began simply with a firm NO to child marriage.
Then she kept saying no. And in three years she refused to grant more than 850 child marriages.
The cheiftans efforts to create gender equality are going beyond marriage.
Another practice Chief Kachindamoto is determined to abolish in her community, and hopefully the entire country, is called sexual initiation. And it sounds more like traumatic rape. Girls as young as 7-years-old are sent off to learn how to please their future husbands.
Ceremonies for “sexual initiation” can involve performing sexual dances or sex acts and can escalate to having sex with the teacher in order to complete initiation. In other cases, girls “learn” while away from their families and then parents hire a male community member to forcefully take their daughter's virginity to see what she has learned.
Needless to say, Chief Kachindamoto was horrified. She told Al Jazeera, “I said to the chiefs this must stop, or I will dismiss them.”
Chief Kachindamoto understood, “if [girls] are educated, they can be and have whatever they want.” She knows the widespread benefits that come from empowering girls. She also understands the need to protect vulnerable girls from practices such as sexual initiation which can be incredibly psychologically damaging.
In addition to protecting the girls in her community, she is also preventing the spread of HIV.
In Malawi, one in ten people is HIV positive. Girls subjected to atrocious sexual exploitation are put at risk for contracting HIV, a deadly virusthey will have to live with for life.
The Secret to Her Success
How has Chief Kachindamoto been so successful in ending these deep rooted traditions?
At first she met great opposition from parents who did not see the benefit of keeping girls in school when they could be married and then fed and cared for by someone else. What else would their daugthers achieve?
Theresa Kachindamoto was the perfect example to show community members the power of education for girls. But, her presence alone was not enough.
She held meetings with local community leaders, parents, families, and still faced challenges. So she changed the law. (Something Global Citizen is working to do in Tanzania right now).
It took bringing together 50 of Chief Kachindamoto’s sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish child marriage in their villages. Collectively, they agreed to end existing unions of child marriage as well.
When chiefs did not follow up on their promise (and thus the law), she responded by firing four chiefs.
So it was through changing and enforcing the law, along with community and social change efforts that Theresa went from a secure office job to Chief Kachindamoto: the woman who stopped 850 child marriage in three years and sent each of those children back to school.
She is truly an inspiration and role model in the fight to end child marriage.