Mtakataka, Malawi – 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.
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She had no desire to return home to Monkey Bay, a stunning cluster of mountains in Dedza District around Lake Malawi. Although she had the blood of chiefs – Malawi’s traditional authority figures – running through her veins, as the youngest of 12 siblings, a woman, and a mother of five, Kachindamoto never expected to become a senior chief to the more than 900,000 people.
But when the chiefs called, she says, they told her to pack her bags and go home to Dedza district, as she had been chosen as the next senior chief.
She was told that she had been chosen because she was “good with people”, and that she was now the chief, “whether I liked it or not”, she recalls.
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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.
Terminating early marriage
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.
On the human development index, Malawi is considered as one of the world’s poorest places, ranking 160th out of 182 nations. Early marriage is more common in rural areas, where parents are eager to get girls out of the house to ease their financial burden.
Emilida Misomali is part of a mothers group in the village of Chimoya, in Dedza district. They warn parents about the long-term ills of early marriage and childbirth, but say it falls on deaf ears.
“Most of them say ‘It’s better that she gets married. We can’t afford to keep her … she will make us poorer’,” Misomali tells.
No matter the rationale, whether better health, education or wellbeing, Misolmali says “stubborn parents” won’t stop giving away their children.
“We see a lot of complications, like cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth.”
In this area – outside Kachindamoto’s jurisdiction – Misomali says that chiefs and police “can’t intervene” as the community backlash is too strong.
The litany of sexually abusive traditions here include sending girls bound for marriage away to camps for “kusasa fumbi” – which means cleansing.
Reportedly at these sexual initiation camps , the girls are taught ‘how to please men’ by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Some “graduate” only by having sex with the teacher. Others return home untouched, only to be preyed on by a local “hyena” – men hired by parents to take their girls’ virginity, or by prospective husbands to impregnate them.
In a country where one in 10 people is infected with HIV, these rites of passage – which rarely involve the use condoms – can sentence girls to a lifetime of trauma, and an early death.
According to Kachindamoto, who has banned these kinds of cleansing rituals, girls as young as seven are sometimes sent to these places.
“I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them,” Kahindamoto says.
Healing through sports
Mary Waya, a former child abuse victim turned international netball star and now coach for Malawi’s national team, nicknamed “The Queens”, says greater awareness of HIV is eroding this tradition.
Still, “in the village, you find some of the chiefs agree to do this cleansing”, she says. There is also the local belief that sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.
One in five Malawian girls is a victim of sexual violence, as is one in seven boys, according to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Its survey found that most abusers are people that children trust and are related to, such as uncles, stepfathers and fathers.
“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,” Nankali Maksud, UNICEF Malawi’s head of child protection told Al Jazeera in an interview in the capital Lilongwe.
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.
Unlike most victims who drop out of school, Waya soothed her childhood trauma by playing sports and through her studies. She meets victims of sexual abuse nationwide through her Mary Waya netball Academy.
“I see girls being abused, being sent to be prostitutes, taken out of school as parents have no money,” or orphaned girls who have to provide for siblings, she says.
She teaches girls to see their bodies as more than just objects for other people’s pleasure. “They forgot that their body was so precious,” Waya says.
Bringing change by law
Many parents did not want to hear Kachindamoto’s pleas to keep their girls in school, or her assurances that an educated girl would bring them a greater fortune.
The common response was that she had no right to overturn tradition, nor, as the mother of five boys, to lecture others on the upbringing of girls.
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.
“First of all it was difficult, but now people are understanding”, Kachindamoto says.
The difficulties she faced included death threats. But Kachindamoto simply 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 says.
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.
Through a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages, Kachindamoto checks that parents aren’t pulling girls out of school. She sends in outside allies to keep them there.
“I tried to call some girls from town so that they could be role models, so that they could come to [our] schools to talk” about their jobs, she says.
Last year, this included sending Malawi’s female MPs to rural schools. The girls in the community suddenly became eager to learn English – the language spoken in parliament.
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.
Whether she likes it or not, there is no going back to her old life, Kachindamoto says, with a cackle. “I’m chief until I die.”