Malawi is one of the smallest and least developed nations in the African continent and, with a 10% HIV infection rate, it’s in dire need of humanitarian aid. Rather than looking outwards for help, Theresa Kachindamoto initiated the change that her region sorely needed. Upon becoming Chief of the Dedza District in Malawi, Theresa tackled the issue of child marriage, completely changing her region in the face of resistance.
Theresa is the youngest of 12 siblings in the Dedza District near Lake Malawi. She worked as a secretary for 27 years, until 2003. Chiefs of the Dedza area chose her to become “Inkosi”, or high chief, of the region. The reasoning was simply that Theresa was good with people. Donning the traditional garb of red robes, beads and leopard-skin headband, the newly-appointed Inkosi set out to bring about the change she wanted to see.
With 10% of Malawi girls married off by the age of 15 and half married before the age of 18, the issue of child marriage weighed on Theresa’s mind. In 2012, Malawi ranked 8th out of 20 countries for highest rate of child marriage, according to a UN survey. It was time for a change. But with a population of 900,000, Theresa anticipated much resistance.
“Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated”, Theresa said to 50 of her sub-chiefs while having them sign an agreement to end child marriage in the Dedza District. When four sub-chiefs continued to approve child marriages, Theresa promptly suspended them as a message to the rest. She annulled over 850 child marriages and stripped the statuses of chiefs who participated in those marriage ceremonies.
The issue of child marriage is a prominent one in Malawi for financial reasons. Many families find it difficult to afford most of life’s necessities, let alone pay for their kids to go to school. Selling their children off to wealthy suitors for marriage is the only financial recourse they have.
Theresa’s goals for young children in her region is a reasonable one. She said, “they must go to school. No child should be found at home or doing household chores during school time.” Her approach to this issue is personal, reaching out to parents who have trouble paying for their child’s education.
Parents in the Dedza District are also aiding in Theresa’s goals. There is a secret network of parents who inform her if other parents remove their children from school. In these cases, Theresa intervenes to provide financial help, either personally or through a sponsor.
With a name that means fire in her native language of Chichewan, Theresa Kachindamoto attacks rural poverty with a passion that burns like her namesake. She has proved to inspire the sub-chiefs underneath her as well as the many families in the Dedza Region. Her foremost belief is schooling for youth before anything. She says, “If they are educated, they can be and have whatever they want.”
Alex Correa | The Edge Blog