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Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, Dzedza district Malawi
Chief Theresa Kachindamoto of the Dzedza district in Malawi led the effort to outlaw child marriage | Photo courtesy of Theresa Kachindamoto

First female Ngoni chief in Malawi, Africa helps end child marriage

Grown women taught girls as young as 10 years old how to “please a man.” The girls, taken away from their families, go into isolation for between two weeks and one month. They receive “coaching” on how to be a woman with a strong emphasis on sexual performance. Men immediately prey on the girls who graduate from camp.

Theresa Kachindamoto
Interview Subject
Chief Theresa Kachindamoto Is the first female Chief of the Dedza district, in the central region of Malawi. She is an active voice in the effort to end child marriages in Malawi. Kachindamoto has been nominated and won several awards for her efforts. She has successfully campaigned against sexist cultural practices like one where older men sleep with young girls to prepare them for marriage.
Background Information
Malawi, like other African countries, still struggles with archaic cultural practices that hinder the development of young people. Fueled by poverty and patriarchism, the practices remain entrenched leading to a rise in illiteracy levels, and the spread of HIV/AIDS in a society that is trying to embrace modern practices and move with the world. As a result, a lot of girls drop out of school, some die during childbirth, and also face domestic violence as most cannot speak up for themselves.
In the year 2017, Malawi finally banned child marriages and amended the age limit to 18 years, as the age of consent.

DEDZA DISTRICT, Malawi, South Africa ꟷ A baby cried incessantly during my coronation ceremony as the first female Ngoni chief of the Dedza district in Malawi. Locals, international guests, and government officials looked on. The wailing child began to attract attention, so I intervened. I came face to face with a wide-eyed young girl straddling the baby on her lap, trying her best to sooth the little one.

She seemed inexperienced and too young to be the child’s mother. I could see it in her demeanor. I asked where the child’s mother went, and the girl’s answer caught me off guard. She informed me she was the child’s mother. I asked her age, and she told me, “I am 15 years old.”

So much ran through my mind that day. Looking back, I remember seeing several young girls carrying babies. I quickly realized my newfound power and influence could be channeled to eradicate child marriages, no matter how long it took. Nearly two decades later, I do not regret my decision at all, especially considering I once rejected the appointment as chief.

Father insists his young daughter receive an education, despite a different path for her siblings

Royal blood runs through my veins. I come from a long lineage of Ngoni chiefs – revered, powerful, and rich. The title of chief runs in my family and the position attracts immense respect among the Ngoni tribe. Culturally, the title remained reserved for male members of the household, passed on from father to son.

Our people believed women to be delicate; they could never go to war or lead warriors. Hence, their duties remained relegated to the household. It never crossed my mind to aspire to such a position. I became the lastborn of 12 children including five sisters and seven brothers. Enjoying my father’s wealth and title, my siblings overlooked the importance of education. Yet, my father ensured I received one.

Growing up, I moved from school to school in many areas. I resented my father because in my young mind, I thought he disliked me. I believed he wanted me away from our home. My father had a larger plan for me, which I found out later. He felt keen on charting a different path for me, than the ones my siblings followed. They all married and had families, enjoying father’s wealth.

One day, I finally asked why he insisted on educating me. He said, as the lastborn of the family, I would suffer when he was gone. He saw education as a way to cushion me for the future. Though vague, his answer calmed me.

Family uproots, woman returns to ancestral village to lead clansmen

My father’s words replayed in my mind later in life. I completed my studies all the way through college and married at an appropriate age. After graduation, I became a secretary at the Zomba theological college – a position I held for close to three decades. Education blessed my life and the lives of my children. Since my childhood, times have changed around certain cultural norms. By sending me away, my father ensured I stayed away from men who may have insisted on marrying me at a young age.

Eventually, my father died and five of my brothers also passed away. I lived far from home, happily married, so it came as a shock to me when my clansmen came calling. During an impromptu meeting, they said they came to an agreement. As a member of the royal family, they selected me to inherit my father’s seat as the leader of the people of Dedza. They asked me to urgently return with them to the village.

So many thoughts went through my mind. To follow them, meant uprooting the life I built with my husband and children. Instinctually, I wanted to reject the offer, and I did. They would not budge. These clansman made up their minds, and camped at my house for close to three weeks.

After seeing their resolution, my husband intervened. After much reassurance and planning on our parts, we agreed to establish our home in Dedza. He and the children would follow me afterwards.

Some resist, but more communities become interested in abolishing child marriage

Once installed, I set out to meet community members, religious leaders, government officials, and sub-chiefs who belong to the Area Developmental Committee (ADC). I wanted to discuss guidelines for abolishing child marriage. I remained firm in my intentions, and the leaders agreed to enact bylaws, committing to the effort.

We ensured everyone must adhere to the new rules. If not, the perpetrators would face consequences. We stressed the importance of education prior to taking on adult duties like marriage. The bylaws went into effect immediately and the work began.

When word spread that I abolished child marriage, some parents organized secret ceremonies with clergymen and sub-chiefs. The practice primarily affects girls, but boys also fall victim to being given away. The parents who resisted said poverty prevented them from sending their children to school. Children pulled out of school become more likely to be married off.

Nevertheless, we cracked down, targeting parents, religious leaders, and traditional leaders at the forefront of organizing illegal events in defiance of the law. They also defied me. Some approached the clan elders, rebuking them for giving power to a woman. They said I had no moral authority to destroy the fabric of their traditions.

This marked the beginning. While we enforced the law, I wanted to do something bigger. Word of the initiative reached local journalists. Leaders in other areas reached out for information. The effort catapulted me onto a national and international stage.

More than 3,000 girls saved from banned marriage initiation camps and sexual abuse

In the past, Malawi’s age of consent was 15 years old. Legislators reached out in an effort to amend the constitution, pushing the age of consent to 18. The happiest day of my life came in February 2015 when the Malawi parliament made a historic, landmark decision to amend the minimum age of marriage. The ruling outlawed child marriages and empowered me to authoritatively carry out my job with the backing of the law.

The next issue to tackle included “marriage initiation camps.” These atrocious camps set out to take away a child’s innocence with the goal of marrying them off when they graduate. Grown women taught girls as young as 10 years old how to “please a man.” The girls, taken away from their families, go into isolation for between two weeks and one month. They receive “coaching” on how to be a woman with a strong emphasis on sexual performance.

Men immediately prey on the girls who graduate from camp. Some are prospective husbands while others are hired to take away their virginity. They call this “sexual cleansing.” As part of my work, I banned this sexually abusive tradition and implemented harsh repercussions for organizers. We have banished pastors and dismissed sub-chiefs from the village for their stance. As a result, we have successfully terminated close to 3,000 child marriages, and counting. The girls we rescue immediately return to school and we keep a keen eye on their families to avoid recurrences.

Leader comes full circle, as girls return to give thanks

While a certain segment of the community struggles with this directive, my will shall not wane. According to them, marriage rights always played a role in Ngoni culture. They say I erode this very important rite of passage. People make threats on my life, but I persist. I know my God-given appointment must make an impact, even if they feel unhappy about it.

The elders who appointment me remain steadfast. They advise anyone who takes issue with my chieftaincy to adhere or leave. Our persistence has paid off. Personally, and through sponsors, we fund education for needy students by paying their school fees. I have a team which follows up with families to ensure the girls stay in school.

Chiefs and leaders from neighboring districts in Malawi visit to learn more about my initiative. They take away lessons and provide feedback on how the implementations unroll in their areas. I have visited over 30 countries by invitation, to educate them on our achievements. I have received 30 awards for this work and receive the support from the president and first lady of Malawi.

Now we come full circle. Several girls I helped rescue returned as adults to give thanks. Each visit reminds me how important this work is. We get to shape a generation by narrowing the gender equality gap. Powerful women provide strong backing, like former president Joyce Banda who held my hand and assured me I had her total support.

We get to build a strong foundation for future presidents, but most importantly, I leave a legacy behind for my people. With my family by my side, I will serve as Chief for my lifetime. I found myself leading a community of close to a million people and I chose to address the primary issue I saw dragging that community down.

I toil, push, enact, and firmly assert my authority for the good of everyone. Hopefully, by the time my leadership comes to an end, I will have left a lasting impact that cannot be undone.

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Lola Wanyonyi is an experienced Multi-media Journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, and holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Communication and Journalism from Moi University. She is Skilled in headline writing, breaking news, media relations, Online News, and News Writing. She is a contributing editor to various international media news outlets.