The mild-mannered woman who zips around a farmhouse packed with knick-knacks and insists her guests eat a meal before any introductions, presents a character at odds with her fearsome reputation of being Malawi’s top marriage terminator.
Thirteen years ago, Theresa Kachindamoto could not have conceived of ever leaving her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college in Zomba, another district in Southern Malawi. Kachindamoto duly donned the traditional beads, red robes and a leopardskin headband, and started touring the rows of mud-walled, grass-thatched homes to meet her people.
She was shocked when she saw girls as young as 12 with babies and teenaged husbands, and was soon ordering the people to give up their ways. “I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.'”
A 2012 United Nations survey found that more than half of Malawi’s girls were married before the age of 18. It ranked Malawi 8th out of 20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world. Last year, Malawi’s parliament passed a law forbidding marriage before the age of 18. But under customary law of the traditional authorities, and the constitution, Malawian children can still marry with parental consent. Early marriage is more common in rural areas, where parents are eager to get girls out of the house to ease their financial burden.
Some traditions promote sexual abuse within the family. If a girl’s aunt or older sister falls sick, she can be sent to look after the household, and in some cases will be expected to have sex with her uncle or step-brother, according to one organisation working in the area, which asked to remain unnamed as Malawian authorities are not fond of such traditions being exposed.
Realising that she couldn’t change the traditionally set mentality of parents, Kachindamoto instead changed the law. She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish early marriage under customary law, and annul any existing unions in her area of authority.
When she learned that child marriages were still taking place in some areas, she fired four male chiefs responsible for these areas. They returned months later to tell her that all marriages had been undone. After sending people to verify this, she hired the chiefs back. She then drew community members, the clergy, local committees and charities together to pass a bylaw that banned early marriage under the civil law.
Over the past three years, Kachindamoto has broken up more than 850 marriages, and sent all of the children involved back to school. Kachindamoto says she often pays for, or finds other sponsors to pay for, the schooling of girls whose parents cannot afford to pay school fees.
She has also been taking as many girls as she can from the village farms on trips to see the bright city lights. Kachindamoto is now asking parliament to increase the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21 in an effort to break a cycle of rural poverty, which in recent years, has been exacerbated by floods and droughts.
“If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want,” she says.