Malawi's fearsome chief, terminator of child marriages
06 April 2016, 13:29
Mtakataka - The mild-mannered woman who zips around a
farmhouse packed with knick-knacks and insists her guests eat a meal before any
introductions, presents a character at odds with her fearsome reputation of
being Malawi's top marriage terminator.
Thirteen years ago, Theresa Kachindamoto could not have
conceived of ever leaving her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college
in Zomba, another district in Southern Malawi.
She had no desire to return home to Monkey Bay, a stunning
cluster of mountains in Dedza District around Lake Malawi. Although she had the
blood of chiefs - Malawi's traditional authority figures - running through her
veins, as the youngest of 12 siblings, a woman, and a mother of five,
Kachindamoto never expected to become a senior chief to the more than 900,000
But when the chiefs called, she says, they told her to pack
her bags and go home to Dedza district, as she had been chosen as the next
She was told that she had been chosen because she was
"good with people", and that she was now the chief, "whether I
liked it or not", she recalls.
Kachindamoto duly donned the traditional beads, red robes
and a leopardskin headband, and started touring the rows of mud-walled, grass-thatched
homes to meet her people.
She was shocked when she saw girls as young as 12 with
babies and teenaged husbands, and was soon ordering the people to give up their
"I told them: 'Whether you like it or not, I want these
marriages to be terminated.'"
A 2012 United Nations survey found that more than half of
Malawi's girls were married before the age of 18. It ranked Malawi 8th out of
20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world.
Last year, Malawi's parliament passed a law forbidding
marriage before the age of 18. But under customary law of the traditional
authorities, and the constitution, Malawian children can still marry with
On the human development index, Malawi is considered as one
of the world's poorest places, ranking 160th out of 182 nations. Early marriage
is more common in rural areas, where parents are eager to get girls out of the
house to ease their financial burden.
Emilida Misomali is part of a mothers group in the village
of Chimoya, in Dedza district. They warn parents about the long-term ills of
early marriage and childbirth, but say it falls on deaf ears.
"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
"We see a lot of complications, like cesarean births
and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth."
In this area - outside Kachindamoto's jurisdiction -
Misomali says that chiefs and police "can't intervene" as the
community backlash is too strong.
The litany of sexually abusive traditions here include
sending girls bound for marriage away to camps for "kusasa fumbi" -
which means cleansing.
Reportedly at these sexual initiation camps , the girls are
taught 'how to please men' by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Some
"graduate" only by having sex with the teacher. Others return home
untouched, only to be preyed on by a local "hyena" - men hired by
parents to take their girls' virginity, or by prospective husbands to
In a country where one in 10 people is infected with HIV,
these rites of passage - which rarely involve the use condoms - can sentence
girls to a lifetime of trauma, and an early death.
According to Kachindamoto, who has banned these kinds of
cleansing rituals, girls as young as seven are sometimes sent to these places.
"I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will
dismiss them," Kahindamoto says.
Mary Waya, a former child abuse victim turned international
netball star and now coach for Malawi's national team, nicknamed "The
Queens", says greater awareness of HIV is eroding this tradition.
Still, "in the village, you find some of the chiefs
agree to do this cleansing", she says. There is also the local belief that
sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.
One in five Malawian girls is a victim of sexual violence,
as is one in seven boys, according to the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF. Its
survey found that most abusers are people that 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.
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
Unlike most victims who drop out of school, Waya soothed her
childhood trauma by playing sports and through her studies. She meets victims
of sexual abuse nationwide through her Mary Waya netball Academy.
"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, she says.
She teaches girls to see their bodies as more than just
objects for other people's pleasure. "They forgot that their body was so
precious," Waya says.
Bringing change by
Many parents did not want to hear Kachindamoto's pleas to
keep their girls in school, or her assurances that an educated girl would bring
them a greater fortune.
The common response was that she had no right to overturn
tradition, nor, as the mother of five boys, to lecture others on the upbringing
Realising that she couldn't change the traditionally set
mentality of parents, Kachindamoto instead changed the law.
She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish
early marriage under customary law, and annul any existing unions in her area
When she learned that child marriages were still taking
place in some areas, she fired four male chiefs responsible for these areas.
They returned months later to tell her that all marriages had been undone.
After sending people to verify this, she hired the chiefs back.
She then drew community members, the clergy, local
committees and charities together to pass a bylaw that banned early marriage
under the civil law.
"First of all it was difficult, but now people are
understanding", Kachindamoto says.
The difficulties she faced included death threats. But
Kachindamoto simply shrugged 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.
Over the past three years, Kachindamoto has broken up more
than 850 marriages, and sent all of the children involved back to school.
Kachindamoto says she often pays for, or finds other
sponsors to pay for, the schooling of girls whose parents cannot afford to pay
Through a network of "secret mothers and secret
fathers" in the villages, Kachindamoto checks that parents aren't pulling
girls out of school. She sends in outside allies to keep them there.
"I tried to call some girls from town so that they
could be role models, so that they could come to [our] schools to talk"
about their jobs, she says.
Last year, this included sending Malawi's female MPs to
rural schools. The girls in the community suddenly became eager to learn
English - the language spoken in parliament.
She has also been taking as many girls as she can from the
village farms on trips to see the bright city lights.
Kachindamoto is now asking parliament to increase the
minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21 in an effort to break a cycle of rural
poverty, which in recent years, has been exacerbated by floods and droughts.
"If they are educated, they can be and have whatever
they want," she says.
Whether she likes it or not, there is no going back to her
old life, Kachindamoto says, with a cackle. "I'm chief until I die."