Theresa Kachindamoto never had the ambition to become head chief in Monkey Bay, an area of Malawi. She was a woman, and came from a different village. However, her reputation of being “good with people” made her the popular choice when it came time for the other chiefs of the village to determine who should lead them. Unable to shirk this newfound power, Theresa decided to take this responsibility in stride. Theresa made headlines as the first female chief ends 1500 child marriages.
It had been a cultural practice in Malawi to marry their children young for decades. Usually, this was done for financial reasons. For families, marriage meant one less mouth to feed. Instead of parents being responsible for providing for a child, this burden would be passed off to the husband. Although longstanding, this tradition turned teenage girls into wives and mothers before they even turned 18. In the area of Monkey Bay, Kachindamoto met girls as young as 12 with husbands and multiple children. Theresa went back to her team of chiefs, determined to make her community better.
I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.‘
Kachindamoto had ended more than 1500 child marriages by 2017, but she decided this wasn’t enough. She began sending the girls who were previously married back to school to finish their education. These decisions, although not always received well, were not only stopping violence against women, they were also leading the country towards ending poverty. In 2017 the UN suggested that 45% of girls in Malawi were unable to remain in school past the eighth grade. Without a complete education these women’s job prospects were basically non-existent. Finishing school meant these women would have a means of making their own income.
True to form, Theresa didn’t stop there. She set her sights on another misguided cultural practice known as “kussa fumbi”, after chipping away at child marriage, and carving out an avenue for women to get an education. Kussa fumbi is the tradition of sending young girls away, girls as young as seven even, to learn how to perform sexual acts to please their potential husbands. After banning the practices, Kachindamoto made it clear that she wouldn’t hesitate to fire any of the chiefs under her who allowed these practices to continue.
Theresa became chief and fired four local chiefs responsible for child marriages. She then convinced fifty sub-chiefs to sign an agreement that they would do their part in enforcing the abolishment of early childhood marriages. Kachindamoto received death threats because of the changes she implemented because many people in the community disapproved of these changes. Theresa’s response? She laughed it off and said,
I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school. I’m chief until I die.
Vital Voices, a foundation dedicated to supporting women, honored Chief Kachindamoto with the Leadership in Public Life award in 2017. By that time she’d already eradicated over 2,000 child marriages, almost single handedly. Although the country was not ready for her, and Kachindamoto didn’t want the position, Malawi was lucky enough to gain an awe-inspiring chief. A chief who has never backed down, and has no plans to either. These days Theresa is working to inspire the girls coming from farming villages to look into city life where there are more jobs, and to learn English so that they may one day participate in parliament. Theresa Kachindamoto is an example of what power, in the hands of the good and righteous, can do.
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