Theresa Kachindamoto is a mother of five. She is former secretary and the youngest of 12 children. She is also a chief, overseeing almost 1 million people, and she is rapidly becoming one of the greatest threats to child marriage in Malawi.
I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with a 2012 UN study estimating that more than 50% of the country’s young women are married before their 18th birthday. Potential child brides are often forced to submit to horrifying cleansing rituals wherein children as young as seven are removed from their homes and taken to camps where they are taught how to seduce and satisfy men. In some cases, they are forced to have sex with their teachers. In others, the girls are returned home, where they are raped by “hyenas”— men who have been hired, by their parents or prospective husbands, to teach them how to perform sexually. Many of the young girls face dangerous pregnancies because they are too small to have children. Those who are not impregnated still face the risk of STDS, a risk that is particularly high in Malawi where 10% of the population is infected with HIV.
Despite being born into a family of chiefs, as a girl and the youngest of 12, Theresa had no expectation of ever becoming one. Instead, she built a life for herself as a mother and a secretary at a local college.
Almost thirty years later however, Theresa received an unexpected call. Her exceptional people skills had resulted in her being chosen as the chief of the Dezda District, and she was going to become their chief — whether she wanted to or not. Although she didn’t want to leave her job and her life, Theresa rose to the challenge, using her position to change the lives of thousands of young girls in the process and devoting herself to ending child marriage in Malawi.
She began by gathering her 50 sub-chiefs and working with them to pass a law banning child marriage in her district. If a sub-chief failed to comply, she dismissed him. It only took four firings for the rest of the sub-chiefs to fall in line. Similarly, Theresa banned the cleansing rituals from being performed in her district. Again, she made it clear that any sub-chief who allowed these horrors to continue would not be a sub-chief for long.
I said to them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages terminated.’
These moves represented significant improvements for young girls in Malawi, but Theresa wasn’t inclined to stop there. Instead, she worked with her sub-chiefs to annul 850 child marriages over the course of three years, a move that earned her the nickname “marriage terminator.”
I talk to the parents. I tell them ‘if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future.’
These changes did not come freely or easily. Theresa received substantial backlash from the families in her district. She’s even received death threats. Still, she perseveres. And when she was told that the girls she saved from child marriages could not go back to school because the families could not afford it, she made sure each and every one of the 850 girls whose marriages she annulled received the funding necessary to continue their education, often financing their studies personally.
Malawi still has a ways to go when it comes to women’s rights, but, thanks to Theresa, things are getting better — one educated, unmarried girl at a time.