“Educate a girl and you educate the whole area … You educate the world.” – Theresa Kachindomoto
In 2003, when Theresa Kachindamoto was called upon to leave her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college to become a village chief in Malawi, she refused. “I said ‘No, I don’t want to be a chief,’ she told writer Hannah McNeish for AlJazeera, but the royal family insisted, asking her to pack her bags and head home to assume her position as the senior chief of Dedza district around Lake Malawi.
In obedience, the mother of five packed up and headed home to Dezda, little did she know that she would be an agent of great change in the district of over 100,000 people. Days after she arrived, Theresa was shocked to see female children as young as 12 with a husband, and children of their own.
Malawi ranks 8th out of 20 countries with the highest child-marriage rates in the world. According to a United Nations survey, more than half of Malawi’s girls are married before the age of 18. This comes as no surprise as the country only recently, in 2015, passed a legislation which changed the legal marriage age from 15 to 18 years.
Theresa immediately called for an end to child marriage, the termination of these existing marriages, and for parents to give their female children an education instead, but no one listened. Most parents said they were too poor to keep a female child, or send her to school, as it will make them poorer. A number of them felt Theresa had no right to change this tradition, especially as a mother of five boys.
If you can’t change them, change the law
Since she could not change their set mentality, Theresa opted to change the law instead. She met with 50 sub chiefs and made them sign an agreement to end child marriage under customary law, and to annul existing unions. “I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them.” Four chiefs who did not adhere to the new law got dismissed for still allowing child marriage in their areas of jurisdiction. But seeing that Theresa meant business, they ensured that existing child marriages were terminated in their areas, this action got their positions reinstated.
The issue of child marriage is not just a Malawian problem, it is one that has long existed in many African countries, and including Nigeria which is one of the countries in Africa with the highest rate of child marriage, particularly in the North. Statistics show that Africa has 15 out of the 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. And according to predictions from UNICEF, the number of child brides will double by 2050 if the current trend continues. The problems that accompany child marriages are numerous including STD’s, Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF), and death.
In Malawi, there are certain appalling traditions that encourage child marriage and subject young girls to sexual abuse. Girls from as young as age seven are sent to “Kusasa fumbi – cleansing – camps”, a camp to prepare girls for womanhood and marriage. Here, they are taught how to please men by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Some end up leaving camp disvirgined by the teacher(s); those who are not, end up being defiled anyway by men hired by their parents to take their virginity and, or impregnate them. There is also a belief that sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.
In the past three years, Chief Theresa has terminated more than 850 child unions, including putting an end to sexually abusive traditions, and sending these young girls to school. Most times, she funds their education, and sometimes she gets sponsors to do so. She also has a large network of village head, men and women who’s helping her enforce these laws. Some to ensure that the girls placed in school are not pulled out.
Theresa also brings in educated female mentors from the city to be role models to the girls in her district. Last year, Malawi’s female parliamentarians were invited to schools in Dezda to speak on their jobs and lives. A visit that inspired most of the local teenage girls. Sometimes, she takes some of the village girls on trips to the city for them to have a feel of what life is outside their rural communities, and hopefully inspire them as well. Currently, this remarkable woman is in the process of getting Malawi’s parliament to increase the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21, and there is no stopping her. She says she will continue to fight for girls’ rights until she dies.