Like most young girls, I spent many hours of my childhood daydreaming about marriage. I imagined the delicate roses my husband would buy to propose to me with, the layers upon layers of white silk and lace for my wedding dress, and let’s not forget the magnificent castle where it would all take place, of course.
Little did I know that even while I was dreaming up my fairy tale of a wedding, across the world in Malawi, girls my same age were being sent away by their parents to be married and have families of their own.
A Girl’s Role In Malawi Tradition
Malawi, a small country located in the southeast region of Africa, is considered one of the poorest places in the world. And as is common in underdeveloped and rural areas, child marriages occur every day. In 2012 it was discovered that over half of the girls in Malawi were married before 18 years of age.
Although a law was passed in 2015 forbidding marriage before the age of 18, these marriages were still possible with parental consent. And due to extreme poverty, parents would eagerly give their consent to send girls off to marriage in order to ease the financial burden on their own home.
It was also common practice to send girls to sexual initiation camps just after starting their first period. These camps were created to teach girls their “duties” as a wife and how to sexually please a man. The camp teachers would usually encourage girls to have sex, often resulting in unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections.
Theresa Kachindamoto Creating Change
Theresa Kachindamoto, a senior chief in the Dedza district of Malawi, became absolutely outraged at constantly seeing 12-year-old girls with teenage husbands and a baby on their hips. Only a short time after being called to the role of chief, Kachindamoto began to take action.
She met with 50 of her sub-chiefs and had them sign an agreement to end child marriage in all areas under her authority. Kachindamoto was determined. She told the chiefs, “Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.” She even fired four male chiefs after learning that they were still allowing child marriages in their areas.
During her time as chief, Kachindamoto has annulled 850 child marriages and reports that all of these girls have gone back to school. Along with this stunning accomplishment, Kachindamoto has also banned the practice of sexual initiation camps.
The Response, And Her Resilience
In Malawi, where tradition runs deep, the response to Kochindamoto’s campaign for change was not always pleasant. When she first spoke out about these issues, many told her that she had no right to mess with tradition, and she even received death threats. But nothing seemed to slow Kachindamoto in the slightest. “I don’t care, I don’t mind,” she shares. “I’ve said, whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school.”
Kachindamoto is so passionate in her desire for change, that she has even helped to fund many girls’ education whose parents were unable. “If they are educated,” she says, “they can be and have whatever they want.” Her resilience in the face of difficulty is inspiring.
Fight For The Future
Kachindamoto’s example is incredibly moving. “I want these girls to be educated because in the future they will take care of us,” she shared. Despite decades of tradition, and a mountain of challenges, she fought for what she saw was right and did all in her power to create a better future.