In a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is dismantling child marriage—about 850 unions in three years, according to Al Jazeera and more than 300 in one month, according to UN Women.
Malawi recently passed a law making marriage under the age of 18 illegal, but in many villages, custom supersedes law. The backlash was immediate, with some telling Kachindamoto she had no right to overturn tradition. She’s ignored the death threats, and is instead lobbying the government to increase marriageable age to 21.
“I have terminated 330 marriages, yes, of which 175 were girl-wives and 155 were boy-fathers. I wanted them to go back to school and that has worked,” Kachindamoto told Malawi’s Nyasa Times newspaper in June last year. The chief has either paid the children’s school fees herself, or found sponsors for them. She makes sure the children stay in school through a network of “secret mothers and fathers” who monitor villages.“We have now set our own laws to govern everybody within my area when it comes to marriages and will leave no sacred cow,” she said.
Before Kachindamoto became leader of over 900,000 people in the Dedza district near Lake Malawi, she worked as a secretary at a college in a neighboring district. After 27 years, the elders summoned her home to become chief—despite being the youngest of 12 siblings, they decided she was best suited because she was “good with people,” Kachindamoto told Al Jazeera.
The people she’s been the best with are the families of girls and boys who are married too young. Horrified at the sight of girls as young as 12, often married to teenage boys, running a household with babies on their hips. Where Kachindamoto found that as many as three quarters of the marriages were consented by parents and chiefs, she suspended the chiefs until they annulled the child marriages in their villages.