Since becoming Chief of Malawi’s Dedza District, Theresa Kachindamoto has single-handedly annulled no less than 850 child marriages in her district. And now she’s taking things to another level.
Central Malawi’s Dedza District is governed by one Theresa Kachindamoto and the monarch has close to a million people under her rulership.
With that kind of power, some rulers might be tempted to lord over everyone; forcefully seize lands as some kind of overlord, possess both property and people like some power-drunk megalomaniac, and generally throw weight about just because they can.
Theresa Kachindamoto is throwing her weight about, alright, but not in a way that is common, and for a good cause too. In her capacity as the Senior Chief of Dedza District, she’s not afraid to help the women and girls in the area, even though it means going against culture.
Since coming to power, she has annulled more than 850 child marriages across the district and sent hundreds of women back to school to continue their education. With the power she wields, she’s also doing the most to abolish cleansing rituals that require girls as young as seven to go through despicable sexual initiation rites which could jeopardize their health and psychological well being.
A survey conducted by the United Nations uncovered that more than half the population of Malawi females are pushed into marriages before they turn 18. And the situation is not helped by the country’s continuous low ranking on the human development index.
That’s probably why individuals like Theresa have taken the onus to arrest the downward trend. Even though she’s had to find her way as a lone ranger at times, with her no-nonsense attitude and pragmatic measures, she’s making significant headway in the fight for the rights of women and children.
Theresa Kachindamoto is a Dedza District native, having been born and brought up there, up until she moved away in search of greener pastures. By the time she returned to her birthplace to serve as Chief having been called upon by the locals, she had already put in twenty-seven years as a Secretary in another district.
One of the first things that struck her upon her return was the sight of girls no older than 12 carrying their babies and young men who have no business being husbands and/or fathers tagging along. It was not a good sight. Now wielding some power as Chief of the district, she went about making things right in the way she knew how.
Last year, Malawi raised the legal age of marriage to 18, yet parental consent continues to serve as a loophole which allows younger girls to marry at much younger ages.
Theresa’s first move towards clamping down on the back-dragging menace was to talk 50 of her sub-chiefs into signing an agreement ending child marriage in Dedza District. She may have had to coerce them into the decision at some point but it was for a good cause.
As part of the more stringent measures she had to take, male chiefs who continued to approve of such unions were suspended from the district cabinet until they squashed such marriages.
It was only a matter of time before her efforts began to yield fruit. In 2015 alone, some 330 child marriages were dissolved as a direct result of her efforts. The young girls were sent back to school with the fearless Chief often paying their fees out of her own pocket.
And now she’s going national. Theresa has now petitioned the Malawian parliament to again raise the minimum legal age of marriage to 21.
Theresa’s efforts have become vital in an area where girls are often pawned off in early marriages so as to ease a family’s financial struggles, and in a country like Malawi where one in five girls are victims of sexual abuse.
The Dedza area is also notorious for cleansing camps where girls are traditionally sent to as part of marriage rites. Particularly disturbing are the sexual initiation rites that take place in these camps. And we are talking about a country where an estimated one in ten people are suffering from HIV. Theresa is now threatening to outrightly dismiss any chiefs that continue to allow these dehumanising practices.
Of course, she’s come under fire and there’s been a lot of criticism from community and even parents. Stepping on toes have been unavoidable and death threats have come in their numbers too.
Yet her resolve to put an end to child marriages in Malawi has been unflinching. She may have had to use some unpopular methods but all those were necessary for changing minds and laws so as to safeguard the future of Malawi’s females.
This unsung hero is advocating for the education of young girls, giving them the power to become whoever they want. And if she’s going to have to gore someone’s ox, it would have been worth it.