Theresa Kachindamoto never had expected that she would become the chief of Malawi. She was perfectly content with her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college in Zomba. Then, one day, she was summoned back home to Monkey Bay, a stunning cluster of mountains in Dedza District around Lake Malawi, because of the chief blood running through her veins.
She had been chosen by the chiefs of Dedza district to be the next senior chief, ruler of over 900,000 people. They told her that she had been chosen because she was good with people. They also told her that she was now the chief whether she liked it or not. Little did any of them (even herself) know that they had just instilled the one who would become a fearsome chief, terminator of child marriages.
“I don’t want youthful marriages. They must go to school. No child should be found at home or doing household chores during school time.” – Kachindamoto
When she returned to her district she couldn’t believe what she saw. Girls as young as 12 years old walking around with babies and teenage husbands. As soon as she stepped into power as chief she began ordering the people to give up their ways as it was the only way to correct what she was seeing.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.'” – Kachindamoto
She began by taking a stand and making 50 of her sub-chiefs sign an agreement to end child marriage in her area of authority. Then she made them annul any existing underage unions, and send all of the children involved back to school, according to an article in the Nyasa Times. In addition, a newspaper report in Al Jazeera stated that Kachindamoto had suspended four male chiefs when they continued to approve underage marriages as a warning to others. She only hiring them back once they confirmed they had annulled the unions.
Malawi is ranked 8th out of 20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world. A survey from United Nations in 2012 showed that more than half of Malawi’s girls were married before the age of 18.
Since 2015 it has been illegal to marrying under age 18 in Malawi. The problem is that children can still be married under so-called “customary law” – with parental consent and overseen by traditional leaders. Therefore, the law isn’t doing much since it is, after all, the parents and not the children that want the marriage to happen.
The Root Of The Problem
The root of the problem is primarily poverty. Malawi is considered as one of the world’s poorest places, ranking 160th out of 182 nations on the human development index. Because the children are a financial burden to the family, patents are eager to get them out of the house. Early marriage is especially common in rural areas where the people are most poor.
In the village of Chimoya, in Dedza district there is a group of mothers trying to warn parents about the long-term ills of early marriage and childbirth. Unfortunately the advice “falls on deaf ears,” says Emilida Misomali, one of the mother’s of the group.
“Most of them say ‘It’s better that she gets married. We can’t afford to keep her … she will make us poorer’,” Misomali tells. “No matter the rationale, whether better health, education or wellbeing, Misolmali says “stubborn parents” won’t stop giving away their children. We see a lot of complications, like cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth.”
The Tradition Of Sexual Initiation Camps
Another factor is the tradition of “kusasa fumbi” – which means cleansing. These are camps were girls are sent away to before marriage for sexual initiation. Here the girls are taught ‘how to please men’ by performing titillating dances and sex acts. If they do not have sex with the teacher they do not graduate. If they return home untouched, the parents either hire a man (the local “hyena” they call him) to prey on and take their girls’ virginity, or they have one of their prospective husbands impregnate them.
“I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them.” – Kahindamoto
Kachindamoto has banned these kinds of cleansing rituals. She feels sorry to say that girls as young as seven are sometimes sent to these places. Although there are still places outside of her jurisdiction where chiefs and police “can’t intervene” as the community backlash is too strong. This is unfortunately sentencing the girls to a lifetime of trauma, and possibly an early death since it is a country where one in ten people is infected with HIV.
As a result of all this, according to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, one in five Malawian girls, and one in seven boys are a victim of sexual violence. The survey also shows that most abusers are people who children trust and are related to, such as uncles, stepfathers and fathers.
“These are the people who are supposed to be protecting young people, but they’re the ones who are the perpetrators, and that makes the response a lot harder,” Nankali Maksud, UNICEF Malawi’s head of child protection told Al Jazeera in an interview in the capital Lilongwe. “For instance, some traditions promote sexual abuse within the family. If a girl’s aunt or older sister falls sick, she can be sent to look after the household, and in some cases will be expected to have sex with her uncle or step-brother, according to one organisation working in the area, which asked to remain unnamed as Malawian authorities are not fond of such traditions being exposed.”
There is also the local belief that sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins, says Mary Waya, a former child abuse victim turned international netball star and now coach for Malawi’s national team, nicknamed “The Queens”. She has noticed though that greater awareness of HIV is eroding this “cleansing” tradition.
Mary Waya has been helping victims of sexual abuse nationwide through her Mary Waya netball Academy. For her, instead of allowing the trauma to ruin her life or cause her to drop out of school like most victims, she soothed her childhood trauma by playing sports and through her studies. Now she is passing on her strategy to others to inspire and help them through their troubles as she has.
“I see girls being abused, being sent to be prostitutes, taken out of school as parents have no money, or orphaned girls who have to provide for siblings,” Waya says. I teach girls to see their bodies as more than just objects for other people’s pleasure. They forgot that their body was so precious.”
Changing Tradition With Law
No matter how much Kachindamoto insisted and pleaded to parents to keep their girls in school with assurances that an educated girl would bring them a greater fortune, they just didn’t want to hear it. The common response was that she had no right to overturn tradition. Furthermore, seeing that Kachindamoto is a mother to 5 boys, they told her she had no right to lecture others on the upbringing of girls.
After excruciating efforts to change the people’s minds she realized that she couldn’t change the traditionally set mentality of these parents. The only option left was to change the law. She drew everyone together and passed a bylaw that banned early marriage under the civil law.
“First of all it was difficult, but now people are understanding.” – Kachindamoto
Not everyone is understanding though. Because of her persistence and success, she has even received death threats. But the fierce and fearless Chief Kachindamoto simply shrugs them off and reiterated the law. “I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school,” she says. And she really doesn’t care because she went on to ask the parliament to raise the minimum age of marriage again from 18 to 21.
Standing strong, Kachindamoto has broken up more than 2,500 marriages since she became chief in 2004 and sent all of the children involved back to school. When the parents cannot afford to pay school fees, she pays for them out of her own pocket or finds other sponsors to pay. She has even set up a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages. They check to make sure that parents aren’t pulling their girls out of school.
Inspiring The Children To Stay In School
Kachindamoto also sends women to the schools to give lectures. “I tried to call some girls from town so that they could be role models, so that they could come to schools to talk” about their jobs, she says. This idea has been working too! Malawi’s female MPs went to give lectures and the girls in the community suddenly became eager to learn English – the language spoken in parliament.
For further inspiration Kachindamoto has been taking as many girls as she can from the village farms on trips to see the bright lights of the city. These field trips show the girls all the possibility and opportunities awaiting them if they stick to their studies.
“If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want.” – Kachindamoto
She is on a mission to make the biggest impact possible while she is chief, which will hopefully be for a very very long time since she is chief until she dies.