Faces of Africa – Chief Theresa: let girls be girls

Chief Theresa Kachindamoto of Malawi is no ordinary chief.

In the past fourteen years that she has been the senior chief in Dedza District, she has annulled over one thousand four hundred child marriages.

Chief Theresa was born in Dedza District around Lake Malawi to Chief Justino Kachindamoto. She is the youngest of twelve siblings, and a mother of five boys.

She worked as a secretary at Zomba Theological College for twenty seven years.

But in 2003, she left her job to become a chief.

The Chiefs of Dedza district chose her to become the senior chief, following her father’s wishes. She accepted.

Chief Theresa Kachindamoto of Malawi. She has annulled over one thousand four hundred child marriages in her District, Dedza.

She would discover something that would infuriate her so much and her subsequent actions would bring change to Dedza.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to a United Nations survey of 2012, more than half of the girls in Malawi were married before they reached the age of eighteen. This ranked the country as having one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world.

Chief Theresa would embark on putting an end to such illegal unions.

She recounted her first encounter with child marriage.

“I saw a girl with a baby on her lap. The baby was crying. So I told her can you take this baby to your mother. She said, no, he’s mine. I asked: he’s yours? She said yes, she’s mine. I asked: how old are you? She said, I’m thirteen years old. I asked: who is the father of that baby? Then she pointed to a boy playing football. I called him, and asked, is this your baby? He said, yes he is my baby, a baby boy,” recalled Theresa.

She went to the parents of the teenagers and terminated that marriage.

“I was very angry. Nobody knew this woman could get angry because I was always laughing, being Royal to them but that time I was serious,” she said.

She asked the parents to take care of the baby and ordered for the girl to be taken back to school immediately.

Chief Theresa at the middle, addressing a group of locals. She’s the senior chief in Dedza.

Persuading the parents was and is still rather hard especially from poor families who have received dowry. But with the support of many of the subordinate chiefs, teachers, village development committees, religious leaders and non-government organizations, she was able to forge the fight against child marriages.

Those who defied her, faced immediate termination from their chieftainship.

“I was involved in an underage marriage case. But these two did it behind my back.

They went to church without my knowledge. The church pastor was the one that reported to the senior chief. Since they were from my village it looked like I had authorized it. I was dismissed from my position,” told Pearson Chibanga – dismissed chief.

Though she has managed to annul a big number of customary organized marriages, she and other child rights advocates face one big challenge, ending sexual initiation.

This practice happens at the onset of puberty when a girl has received her menstrual periods. The girls are taken through sexual initiation by having one man called the hyena man break the girls’ virginity. The practice is meant to enlighten the girls on sex.

Girls about to undergo a customary sexual initiation. At the onset of puberty, Malawian virgin girls undergo sexual initiation by having sex with a hyena man.

As a result of this, many girls have become pregnant and this has also led to the increase in the spread of HIV/AIDs.

But Theresa is not giving up and she’s hopeful that one day this practice will be completely eliminated.

Her efforts have brought her international recognition and organizations like United Nations Women (UNW) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) plan to work with traditional leaders in other parts of Malawi and replicate her best practices in reducing child marriages.

“One day I will die but I will die as a happy chief because now Dedza is changing.

Now I feel comfortable,” said Chief Theresa.