Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is known as the “marriage terminator” to her Southern Malawi tribe of almost 1 million people.
In just three years, she has been able to end over 850 child marriages — sending those young girls to school instead.
The timid mother of five boys came from humble beginnings. She was the youngest of twelve children and spent her nearly thirty year career as a secretary at a college in Zomba, Malawi. Kachindamoto found out she had chieftain blood, meaning she was in consideration by the people in her home district of Monkey Bay to be the next chief.
To her great surprise she was chosen to be chief because she was good with people, and assumed office in 2003.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world — a little over half of the population lives under the poverty line. According to a 2012 United Nations study, over 50 percent of Malawian girls were married before the age of eighteen. These young girls had limited opportunities because of their mrriages; instead of being in school, getting an education, and creating a life of their own, they were forced by their parents to be young brides — and eventually young mothers.
Chief Kachindamoto took it upon herself to abolish this practice once and for all. She kept refusing to grant child marriages until she’d stopped almost one thousand of them from occurring. But on her mission to create gender equality and education reform for young women, she did not stop at just saying no — she took action.
Because of Chief Kachindamoto, it has been illegal for girls under the age of 18 to get married since early 2015. If their parents agreed to it, then it would still be an acceptable marriage.
The Chief made over 50 sub-chiefs sign an agreement to annul any existing underage union. When four male chiefs continued to grant underage marriages, the Chief suspended them as a warning to other chiefs. They now knew not to cross her. She only rehired them once they agreed to annul those unions.
Chief Kachindamoto understood that abolishing child marriages for these young girls and giving them an education would increase their opportunities in life. It would help to curb the spread of HIV in Malawi, where 1 in 10 people in the country have contracted the disease. The horrific sexual initiation practices that girls as young as seven years old were forced to participate in would cease or be greatly reduced as well. The Chief said to the chiefs below her that they must stop these practices or they will be dismissed.
So why was Chief Kachindamoto meeting opposition and even receiving death threats from the parents of these young girls?
Many parents did not understand the benefit of keeping a girl in school, when she could instead be married, fed and cared for by someone else. The Chief met with local community leaders, parents, and families to explain her passion and dedication to ensuring their daughters get an education. After changing the law to abolish child marriage completely, she says they are starting to come around and understand the importance of these changes.
To ensure that the girls are continuously getting an education, and not being pulled out of school, the Chief has a secret network of parents to keep an eye on the others.
When she was told that some of the girls’ families could no longer afford school, Chief Kachindamoto stepped up to the plate. She made sure that each of the 859 girls saved from an underage union received all the funding necessary to continue their education — even if it meant she funded them herself.
Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is truly an inspiration to us all. Her actions have shown the depth of her love for education, for enriching the lives of the young women in her community, and for keeping the community safe and healthy.
She has truly progressed the women’s rights movement in Malawi, and as she has said herself, “I’m chief until I die.”