She’s Malawi’s Terminator Of Child Marriages. Meet Theresa Kachindamoto

She’s Malawi’s Terminator Of Child Marriages. Meet Theresa Kachindamoto

When the elders chose her as the new senior chief, Theresa Kachindamoto quit her job of 27 years as a secretary at a college in the city of Zomba, and headed home to Monkey Bay, a beautiful mountainous area around Lake Malawi.

As a woman, the youngest of 12 siblings, and a mother of five, Kachindamoto never expected to become a chief to more than 100,000 people, but she comes from a line of traditional Malawian authority figures.

She was chosen because she was “good with people”and it wasn’t negotiable, she said, according to an AlJazeera report by Hannah McNeish.

Kachindamoto donned the traditional leopardskin headband, red robes and beads and started visiting people in their mud-walled, grass-thatched homes.

She was shocked to see girls as young as 12 with babies and teenaged husbands.

“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated,'” she said, according to AlJazeera.

More than half of Malawi’s girls are married before the age of 18, according to a 2012 U.N. report. Malawi ranks eighth out of 20 countries with the world’s highest child-marriage rates.

The country’s parliament passed a law in 2015 forbidding marriage before age 18 but Malawian children can still marry with parental consent under constitutional and customary law, and traditional authority.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest places, ranking 160th out of 182 countries on the human development index. In rural areas, child marriage is more common as a way for parents to relieve their financial burden.

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Emilida Misomali is part of a mothers group in the village of Chimoya that warns parents about the complications of early marriage and childbirth.

“Most of them say ‘It’s better that she gets married. We can’t afford to keep her … she will make us poorer’,” Misomali said, according to AlJazeera.

Stubborn parents won’t stop giving away their children, she said.

“We see a lot of complications, like cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth.”

Police don’t intervene because community backlash is too strong.

One in 10 people is infected with HIV in Malawi. There is a local belief that sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.

One in five Malawian girls and one in seven boys are are victims of sexual violence, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Most abusers are people that children trust and are related to, such as uncles, stepfathers and fathers, a survey found.

“These are the people who are supposed to be protecting young people, but they’re the ones who are the perpetrators, and that makes the response a lot harder,” said Nankali Maksud, UNICEF Malawi’s head of child protection, in an Al Jazeera interview in the capital Lilongwe.

Realising that she couldn’t change the traditionally set mentality of parents, Kachindamoto changed the law instead, AlJazeera reported.

She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish early marriage under customary law, and annul any existing marriages in her area of authority.

When she learned that child marriages were continuing, she fired four male chiefs. They returned later to tell her that all marriages had been reversed. After she verified it, the chiefs got their jobs back.

She then got community members, clergy, local committees and charities to pass a bylaw banning early marriage under civil law.

“It was difficult, but now people are understanding”, Kachindamoto said.

Kachindamoto begs parents to keep their girls in school, saying education will bring them a greater fortune than early marriage.

Their common response? She has no right to overturn tradition, or, as the mother of five boys, to lecture others on bringing up girls.

She faced death threats but didn’t let it bother her.

In three years, Kachindamoto has broken up more than 850 marriages, and sent all of the children involved back to school.

She often pays for their education herself, or finds others to pay when parents can’t afford it.

The girls in the community became keen to learn English — the language spoken in parliament — after a visit by MPs.

Kachindamoto is now asking parliament to increase the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21 to try and break the cycle of rural poverty, exacerbated in recent years by floods and droughts.

“If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want,” she told AlJazeera.