Most people have never heard of a hero quite like Theresa Kachindamoto. She was the youngest of 12 kids who were descendants of village chiefs who presided over Monkey Bay in Malawi, Africa. When she found out that it was her turn to serve as the new senior village chief, Kachindamoto had been working at a city college for the past 27 years. Once she came into power, she immediately set about bringing an end to the practice of child marriage within her jurisdiction. At first, Kachindamoto did not expect that she would ever have a chance to become chief. After all, she resided in a different town, had many older siblings in front of her, plus she was raising five children.
But, thanks to her reputation as someone who was “good with people,” Kachindamoto came into power thanks to a surprise election. And her people told her that the job was hers “whether I like it or not,” she recalled. And although child marriage is considered culturally acceptable in her area, mainly because of the high levels of poverty, it has also been illegal in her country since 2015. However, this did not put an end to child marriages since young girls could still be married so long as they have parental consent. However, Kachindamoto made up her mind to put an end to the long-standing tradition of robbing young girls of their childhoods by forcing them to marry older men and become mothers before they turn 18.
While traveling around Monkey Bay to meet with the people she was to govern, Kachindamoto met with girls as young as 12-years-old with older husbands and children they were raising.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.’”
Kachindamoto’s story may seem small; after all, she’s only a village chief. However, she’s chief to over 900,000 people, which definitely takes her out of the “small-town mayor” category. So far, she has annulled over 850 marriages and sent those girls back to school.
Mawlawi is classified as one of the poorest countries in the world. And, according to a 2012 survey by the United Nations, over half of the country’s girls were married before turning 18.
Also, there are organizations working within the country to warn parents about the dangers associated with early marriage and childbirth.
Sadly, parents are typically so poor that they cannot afford to house and feed their daughters, so they often feel they have no choice but to marry them off to older men.
The reality of child marriage is that it often leads to complications in childbirth, primarily because the girls’ bodies are too small to handle the stress of giving birth safely.
Perhaps even worse, these girls are often sent off to despicable camps for “kusasa fumbi,” a word that translates as “cleansing.” However, the practice is really a sexual initiation.
These camps instruct girls as young as seven-years-old on how to perform sexual acts to appease their future husbands.
Kachindamoto was the first chief to impose a hard-line stance against anybody involved in these practices, threatening to fire any sub-chief who sanctioned it.
When parents started to protest Kachindamoto’s law, she did not back down. She knew that she could not change the minds of those parents, but she could change the law.
So, she brought together her 50 sub-chiefs and made them sign an agreement that officially abolished child marriage and annulled existing child marriages in her area.
Of course, there were those folks who decided to continue the practice anyway.
However, Kachindamoto demonstrated that she wasn’t messing around by firing four male chiefs who presided over areas where the practice was still taking place. They were only able to get their jobs back once they agreed to enforce the new law by annulling the marriages and sending the girls back to school.
Despite facing numerous death threats, Kachindamoto remained steadfast.
“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.
The new chief also came up with ways to pay for the girls’ schooling, considering that their parents could not afford the fees.
However, Kachindamoto isn’t satisfied just to sit back and think she’s done enough. The chief also hired a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages to ensure that parents are not taking their girls out of school.
And as for those who still complain about their chief’s new law? She says that they are the least of her concerns.
“I’m chief until I die,” she said, laughing.
What an incredible story of courage in the face of a long-standing inhumane tradition. Please be sure to share Kachindamoto’s story with your friends and family.