Imagine being a young teen and married off to a man you barely know. This is the reality for millions of child brides each year, and it’s prevalent in many countries, including Malawi.
However, child brides in Malawi are in luck. Theresa Kachindamoto, senior chief of the Dedza district of Malawi, has dedicated her political career to freeing girls from child marriages and providing them with an education.
Who Is Theresa Kachindamoto?
Theresa Kachindamoto was born into a Malawi family that valued gender equality and education. Her family encouraged her to pursue an education and career in clerical work before advancing into politics.
One of Kachindamoto’s brothers was the senior chief of the Dedza district of Malawi before passing away in 2003. Since he didn’t name a successor, it was up to the district council to appoint the next senior chief. As Kachindamoto was the most educated woman from the district, the choice to appoint her was an easy one. Kachindamoto left her city job and returned to lead her people. As senior chief, she leads 51 subchiefs – both men and women – who each oversee 10 villages. There are about 1 million people under Kachindamoto’s authority.
As senior chief, she leads 51 subchiefs – both men and women – who each oversee 10 villages.
Since assuming her role as senior chief of the Dedza district of Malawi nearly two decades ago, Kachindamoto has made a name for herself by advocating for gender equality in education and freeing Malawian girls from child marriages.
How Did She Liberate 3,500 Child Brides?
The child bride industry (there’s really no other way to describe it) is brutal. Young girls are taught from an early age the importance of sexually pleasing their future husbands and are sent to sex camps called "Kusasa Fumbi" as soon as they start menstruating. At these camps, girls are further indoctrinated into believing their only role in society is to sexually please their husbands. Education and individuality are thrown out the window, as these girls are taught that they’re nothing more than sex objects.
Kachindamoto was disturbed when she witnessed the practices at a “Kusasa Fumbi” camp. Alongside this, nearly half of Malawian women marry before they turn 18 (mainly because their families are too poor to provide for them) – Malawi has one of the world’s highest child marriage rates. After seeing girls as young as 12 with a baby of their own in the villages, Kachindamoto made it her mission to liberate child brides, prevent future child marriages, and advocate for gender equality in education.
Malawi has one of the world’s highest child marriage rates.
It took five years, but Kachindamoto was part of a group that helped get Malawi’s parliament to outlaw marriage for both girls and boys younger than 18 in 2015. While it’s now illegal, Kachindamoto still faces deep seated cultural practices and poverty, which both motivate child marriage.
To change the culture in her village, Kachindamoto had all of her subchiefs sign an agreement to ban child marriage in their villages. If a village headman in her jurisdiction ignores the laws against child marriage, then he is removed from this position and replaced. Kachindamoto also traveled to the villages to annul child marriages as she became aware of them.
“It is good that the law is on our side now, but enforcing it remains a big challenge,” Kachindamoto said. “In many areas people still believe a girl is ready to have sex and babies when she reaches puberty. We have to eradicate these old ways of thinking.”
To learn which girls were child brides, Kachindamoto started a group of women called the Mother’s Group to help her find married underage girls in their villages. After the girls were identified, Kachindamoto exercised her authority as chief and arbiter of cultural practices to have the marriage annulled and financially support the girl to go back to school and take care of her children. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, she annulled more than 330 child marriages.
During Kachindamoto’s tenure as senior chief, she has liberated over 3,500 child brides. Upon finding out she was free, one of the former child brides said, “I’m nervous but excited. I can start my life all over again.”
How Kachindamoto Empowers Girls in Malawi
Kachindamoto doesn’t stop with freeing girls from their marriages but encourages them to get an education and make something of themselves. Upon freeing a girl in 2018, she told her, “If you study hard, you could become a doctor, a teacher, or a policewoman. You must have a vision for your future.”
Kachindamoto believes that making sure these girls receive an education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty for them and to prevent them from suffering in abusive marriages. “You will never improve your lives unless you educate your daughters,” she tells the families in Dedza.
One World Bank study found that “every year of secondary schooling completed increases an individual girl’s future earning power by 18%.” Education does more than raise their earning power – it’s also correlated with better health, marrying later, and providing better for their children.
“You will never improve your lives unless you educate your daughters.”
“Eventually, it is my dream to have college scholarships and job-training centers to empower girls to fulfill their potential,” Kachindamoto said, “so we will keep working toward that goal.”
By encouraging the freed child brides to go back to school, Kachindamoto allows them to be whatever they want to be. Whether the girl decides to marry again after graduating or to go on to college and start her own career, she has the same rights and opportunities as the boys in her village.
Girls having the same rights as boys when it comes to education is so common in the West (and thank goodness for it!) that we forget that the chance to finish high school (or even elementary or middle school) isn’t a right for girls in other countries. Though it’s a sad and uncomfortable reality to accept, it goes to show how much work needs to be done to give girls in other countries a chance to succeed. By going out of her way to help girls have the same chance at an education that she had, Kachindamoto has the potential to provide a path for a girl who will make as much of a difference as her someday.
Child marriages are the tragic reality for millions of girls around the world, but some are getting a second chance to restart their lives and make their own path. Thanks to Theresa Kachindamoto, thousands of Malawian girls have been freed from their child marriages and have been given the opportunity to return to school. Only time will allow us to see what these girls will become, but none of it would be possible without the bravery and courage of Theresa Kachindamoto.
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