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Meet the Chief Fighting Child Marriages in Malawi

Originally published in 2020 on The Women's Network blog.

Every year, across the world, 15 million girls become underage brides; that’s 28 girls per minute. Malawi, a landlocked country in East Africa, has long been a hotbed for child marriages, with nearly one in two girls wed before the age of 18. But this is beginning to change, thanks to one woman. 

Theresa Kachindamoto is an acclaimed Malawi chief ruling over 545 villages and nearly 1 million people in the Dedza District. In Chichewa––the Malawian language––Kachindamoto means “Don't mess with fire.” If that wasn’t demonstrative enough, she’s been nicknamed “The Terminator." And for good reason. 

Through her “secret mothers”––female informers who keep an eye on local activities in their village––Kachindamoto has discovered and annulled 3,500 child marriages (and that was only by March of 2019). She also spearheaded the 2017 constitutional amendment that changed the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 18. 

Dolophine Makunje is one of the young girls rescued by Kachindamoto. At age 12, she was married to a 32-year-old man who physically abused her, forced her to work in the fields while he disappeared to drink, and used her body upon his return. Around the age of 13, Makunje became pregnant. She was unsure of what was happening to her body, and received no guidance or healthcare before giving birth to a stillborn baby girl. Now freed, she has returned to school and aspires to become an engineer.

After a marriage is annulled, Kachindamoto and a group of female volunteers ensure the girl is cared for. They check for HIV and other STIs, look after her until the birth of her child if she is pregnant, ensure she breastfeeds for six months before sending her back to school, and see to it that her family or community cares for the child while she is in class. 

Chief Kachindamoto’s philosophy is:

Unfortunately, “only 45 percent of girls move beyond the eighth grade” in Malawi, many married off for a price, or to help pay off family debts. The only way to ensure more girls receive an education is to eradicate child marriages. Doing so could generate more than $500 billion for the global economy each year. 

Until the rate of child marriages reaches zero, many girls are trapped in a “vicious cycle of poverty,” without an education to boost career opportunities, forcibly dependent on husbands who may be abusive and/or unable to provide for the family. In more tragic cases, these girls lose their chance at any sort of future, teen pregnancies making up 20 to 30 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi. 

Kachindamoto lives frugally, devoting her money to girls who cannot afford their education. With all the young girls she has freed and now assists, the cost is accumulating, putting a financial strain on the chief. There are several places you can donate to support the education of girls in Malawi, such as Unicef’s K.I.N.D scholarship. If unsure how much to contribute, consider that one girl’s school expenses typically amount to a mere $60 per year. 

There are other ways to get involved as well. The Dedza District harbors only two women’s clinics that concentrate on reproductive health. These clinics were long funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). However, in January 2017, the Trump administration reinstated an executive order blocking nearly $9 billion in U.S. financial aid to global health organizations such as UNFPA. As a result, the clinics in Malawi are struggling. You can donate directly to UNFPA’s female-centric work, and you can vote to prevent further expansion of such gag rules. 

Chief Kachindamoto has done so much good in Malawi. She has funded a school dormitory for girls. She has worked to prevent kusasa fumbi, a sexual cleansing rite in which women who have had abortions, widows, and young girls are forced to spend three days having unprotected sex with older men. She works closely with school teachers to educate male and female students on violence and abuse against women. She wants to create "college scholarships and job-training centers to empower girls," and not even death threats have discouraged her from her work. 

The tenacious chief once arrived to annul a marriage, blazing in her brightly colored robes:

To join Chief Kachindamoto in her fight, consider donating to the following resources:

If you can’t afford to donate, you can find alternate forms of action here…

And remember, you can always afford to vote. 

Read more editorial pieces under "Published Works" tab.


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