In Malawi, a powerful female chief is turning around the lives of young girls day by day as she fights to end the oppressive practices done against them.
To Theresa Kachindamoto, the thought of leaving her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college in Zomba was completely inconceivable. Returning to her home in Monkey Bay was also the last thing on her mind.
But that was thirteen years ago.
Though Theresa had the blood of chiefs – Malawi’s traditional authority figures – she never thought that she would become one. That is until the chiefs called and summoned her return to Dedza district.
Since then, the mother of five had been leading more than 900,000 people as their senior chief.
Theresa was told that she had been chosen because she was “good with people”, and she was appointed as chief, “whether I liked it or not”, she said.
Upon her return, Theresa was shocked by the atrocities happening in her district. Girls as young as 12 already had babies with teenage husbands.
The senior chief soon ordered the people to break from tradition and give up their ways.
“I told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.'”
Since she came to power, Theresa was able to annul 850 marriages, sending all of the girls back to school.
These marriages are usually enacted out of financial need, with most families wanting their daughters to get married because they can no longer afford to keep them. With this practice comes tragic complications, such as cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth.
Other abusive traditions practiced in the area include sending girls bound for marriage away to camps for “kusasa fumbi”, which means cleansing.
In these sexual initiation camps, girls are taught how to please men by performing certain dances and acts. Some can only graduate by sleeping with the teacher, while others go back home untouched, only to be targeted by a local “hyena” – a term referring to men who are hired by a girl’s parents to take her virginity, or by prospective husbands to impregnate them.
Girls as young as seven were being sent to these camps, and the senior chief has strongly banned it.
“I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them,” she said.
Theresa encouraged parents to keep their daughters in school, assuring them that an educated girl would bring their family greater fortune – but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Instead, she received backlash, with people saying that she had no right to overturn tradition and lecture parents on their upbringing.
Aware of the fact that these long-held mentalities of parents are difficult to sway, Theresa decided to change the law.
She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to end the practice of early marriage under customary law and revoke any existing unions in her area of jurisdiction.
When she learned that child marriages were still taking place in some areas, she fired the four male chiefs who oversaw them. The chiefs returned four months later to tell Theresa that all the unions had been undone, and the senior chief took them back after it was verified.
Theresa then gathered community members, the clergy, local committees, and charities together to establish a bylaw that prohibited early marriage under the civil law.
“First of all it was difficult, but now people are understanding”, she said.
By going against the grain, Theresa faced a lot of difficulties including death threats. But the strong-woman just shrugged them off and reiterated the law.
“I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school,” she said.
With a lot more to accomplish, Theresa said that there is no turning back for her. She said:
“I’m chief until I die.”
Thank you, Theresa Kachindamoto, for being the leader that these young women needed. By abolishing these oppressive practices, you have saved these innocent girls’ lives and gave them a new future – a much brighter one.