Situated in South Eastern Africa, the country of Malawi is one of the poorest in the world. On the human development index, is ranks 160th out of 182 nations. It also has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, ranking eighth out of the 20 countries that officially have child marriages.
As UNICEF reports, these figures greatly impact on children’s access to education, particularly young girls, as it makes them more vulnerable to harmful cultural practices, premature marriages, and therefore a higher risk of early pregnancies and maternal mortality.
It is in this environment that local woman, Theresa Kachindamoto found herself suddenly becoming Chief. Thirteen years ago, Kachindamoto had been working at a city college job in Malawi. Despite being a descendant of a Chief, Kachindamoto never thought she would become a leader herself, as she was the youngest of 12 siblings, a women and a mother of five of her own children.
However, thirteen years ago, Kachindamoto received a call from the local chiefs to return to her home in the Dedza district, where she was to become the next senior Chief to more than 900,000 people.
It was on her early tours of the village to meet her people that Kachindamoto reports being shocked at the number of young children who were parents. She decided that it would be her mission to ban the practice of child marriages, and began instructing her fellow chiefs to outlaw it. “I told them, ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.’”
Last year, the Malawi parliament passed a law banning marriage before the age of 18. However, the practice still continues under customary law, where children can still marry with parental consent.
Due to reasons of tradition and also the pressures of poverty, many families still engage in the practice of marrying off their children.
It is this view that Chief Kachindamoto wants to overcome, and has since annulled 850 of the customary marriages in the last three years. She has been determined in her approach, having fired fellow chiefs for failing to successful outlaw the practice in some areas.
The Chief has received some backlash, including death threats, however she remains undeterred. “I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school,” she said.