Theresa Kachindamoto is a hero. You may not have heard of her yet, but she is responsible for annulling 850 child marriages in her native country of Malawi. And if that wasn’t enough, she has made sure those children are given the opportunity for an education.
Kachindamoto is descended from a line of village chiefs in an area of Malawi called Monkey Bay. When the time came for a new senior leader to be chosen for her ancestral home, Kachindamoto was entered into the race, much to her surprise. She didn’t even live in Monkey Bay and had been a secretary at a university for the past 27 years. The youngest of 12 siblings, she was in her own estimation, far form the first choice to be chief. But one thing she did have was a reputation as being “good with people” and that was enough for her to win a surprise election. Overnight she went from working an office job to governing over 900,000 people.
Once elected Kachindamoto, the mother of 5 children herself, made it her mission to end the tradition of child marriage in her land. Technically illegal in Malawi, the practice has continued to be prevalent due to financial pressures and the loophole of it being legal with parental consent. Furthering the problem is the practice’s continued social acceptance. As recently as 2012 it was reported that over half of girls in Malawi under 18 were married. Kachindamoto was disturbed to see the lives of the young girls she was governing and recalls seeing children as young as 12-years-old with husbands and children.
Once she stepped into her role as leader, Kachindamoto put her flag in the ground and begin tackling the issue. She made it clear she would have no tolerance for the continuance of child marriages and has annulled hundreds over her time as chief.
As praiseworthy as Kachindamoto’s efforts are, her stance has caught much resistance, even to the point of death threats. Despite numerous organizations in Malawi working to educate the population about the ramifications of child marriage, many parents see feeding and clothing their daughters as impossible amidst the poverty of their land. This has created a culture that justifies selling children into marriages with much older men.
It was this ingrained mindset that showed Kachindamoto she would have to do more than educate parents; she would have to address the laws. Once she became chief, she rallied the other sub-chiefs in her area and created an agreement to annul existing child marriages and prohibit new ones. Her message was clear and she has already fired multiple chiefs who have refused to enforce the new laws.
In addition to rescuing young girls, Kachindamoto is passionate about giving them an opportunity to have an education. For those without the means to go to school, she finds a way of paying tuition for them. And to further protect her girls, Kachindamoto has created a network of “secret mothers and fathers” to be her eyes and make sure parents don’t pull the children out of school.
Even against generations of abusive traditions, Kachindamoto makes it clear she isn’t gong anywhere. “I’m chief until I die,” she said, laughing. This powerhouse is changing her land and the lives of the next generation of girls and the end is nowhere in sight.