When Theresa Kachindamoto got a call from the chiefs of Malawi’s Dedza district telling her she had to come home to rule over almost a million people, she was reluctant. The college secretary didn’t want to leave her job of 27 years, and didn’t want to uproot the lives of her five sons. But the chiefs insisted, so she left for the remote area of Monkey Bay, beside Lake Malawi. Thirteen years later, she is leading a small but powerful revolution, fighting deeply ingrained tradition to stop the abuse that is child marriage.
After arriving in Monkey Bay, Kachindamoto was shocked to see girls as young as 12 having babies. Over the past three years, she has worked with sub-chiefs, local officials, charities and community groups to terminate over 850 child marriages, has banned marriage for anyone under 18, and made sure all the girls in the district are in school.
Kachindamoto spoke to Hannah McNeish from her home in Mtakataka, an hour’s drive from Monkey Bay, about her mission to teach girls that their bodies are precious, and that education, not marriage, is the key to a secure future.
I had been working at Zomba Theological college as a secretary for 27 years. When the royal family called to say they wanted me to become chief, first I said I didn’t want the job. But they said, “You must be chief, whether you like it or not.” I asked why they couldn’t choose one of my older brothers or sisters, and they told me that they see in me someone who is good with people. They said, “We know that if you come here, things will change.”
I love my job as a chief. One time, when I was visiting my relatives, I saw a small girl with a baby and I asked her who the mother is. She replied, “It’s mine.” It pained me a lot because the boy was 14 and the girl just 12. I asked the parents why they let their children marry at such a young age. They replied: “Because we have nothing at home.”
I called my village heads, NGO groups and government committee members. I told them what I had been seeing and we discussed [child marriage] for the first time. We made a memorandum of understanding that child marriage must be changed. Later, we wrote bylaws that stated a girl must be 18 to get married. We are happy parliament passed that bill, but we are still lobbying for the minimum age to be raised to 21.
Between 2013 to 2014, I terminated around 330 young girls’ marriages and by 2015 as many as 549 forced child marriages. All of them have gone back to school. When a girl gets pregnant, we terminate the marriage. The boy and the girl must live with their parents. Our agreement states that when a girl is having a baby, the mother must keep that baby while the girl goes back to school.
Around 50 chiefs and around 500 head women report to me. We are responsible for almost 1 million people.
I have called women who are working in town to be role models to the girls. Some are nurses, one is a magistrate and others work for NGOs. They visit the schools and encourage the girls. Last year, we got women politicians to come and talk to the children. It was wonderful because the girls all said they wanted to be members of parliament and I told them if they wanted to, they needed to stay in school to learn English.
When people resist change and say that the children belong to them, I tell them they also belong to me, so whether they like it or not, the marriages will be terminated. Some parents say they want to have grandchildren, some are poor and say they want something from the family of the boy who is marrying their daughter – a goat or cow, things like that.
We put child protection workers and secret mothers [in the villages] who are responsible for looking after the young girls. If a girl gets pregnant, they find out who made her pregnant. If it’s a grown man, we report it to the police because it is wrong to have a man marry a small girl.
I also dismissed four chiefs who allowed children to be married in their villages. After three months they came to me and said: “Chief, we have terminated those marriages. The boy has gone back to school and even the girl is in school.” I sent someone to make sure they were telling the truth and then gave them their jobs back.
First it was difficult, but now people understand what I mean. Because when we go to explain to parents and counsel them, when we terminate marriages, we say: “If your girl is educated, you can have anything. So, please, let’s send these girls to be educated and, in the future, they will help us.” Yes, they want grandchildren. But grandchildren will come later.
When you teach a girl, you teach the whole area, or the whole nation. When a girl starts working, she will give her first salary to her parents, but a boy, he just wants to buy things like watches, a cell phone and a radio. When I started working, I came home and helped my mother. I bought a goat for her to keep, then after that I bought her a cow, so that she can have milk and if she wanted to have meat, she could kill one goat to feed the family.
Aside from child marriage, girls are victims of sexual initiations, where men have sex with small girls, some as young as seven years old. Some men – we call them hyenas – are hired to take small girl’s virginity. Others are hired to impregnate wives who are having a hard time conceiving. The practice was not good for us, so we needed to get rid of it, too.
It’s my goal to get 1,000 girls back in school this year. I will be a chief until I die. I have received several death threats in the past, but I just prayed to God to help me solve these problems and now it’s fine.