A female chief in Malawi is breaking up child marriages and sending kids back to school

Child marriage is still common in Malawi.
Child marriage is still common in Malawi.
Image: AP Photo/Obed Zilwa
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In a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is dismantling child marriage—about 850 unions in three years, according to Al Jazeera and more than 300 in one month, according to UN Women.

Malawi recently passed a law making marriage under the age of 18 illegal, but in many villages, custom supersedes law. The backlash was immediate, with some telling Kachindamoto she had no right to overturn tradition. She’s ignored the death threats, and is instead lobbying the government to increase marriageable age to 21.

Malawi’s Chief Theresa Kachindamoto has led the push against child marriage.
Malawi’s Chief Theresa Kachindamoto has led the push against child marriage.
Image: UN Women

“I have terminated 330 marriages, yes, of which 175 were girl-wives and 155 were boy-fathers. I wanted them to go back to school and that has worked,” Kachindamoto told Malawi’s Nyasa Times newspaper in June last year. The chief has either paid the children’s school fees herself, or found sponsors for them. She makes sure the children stay in school through a network of “secret mothers and fathers” who monitor villages.“We have now set our own laws to govern everybody within my area when it comes to marriages and will leave no sacred cow,” she said.

Before Kachindamoto became leader of over 900,000 people in the Dedza district near Lake Malawi, she worked as a secretary at a college in a neighboring district. After 27 years, the elders summoned her home to become chief—despite being the youngest of 12 siblings, they decided she was best suited because she was “good with people,” Kachindamoto told Al Jazeera.

The people she’s been the best with are the families of girls and boys who are married too young. Horrified at the sight of girls as young as 12, often married to teenage boys, running a household with babies on their hips. Where Kachindamoto found that as many as three quarters of the marriages were consented by parents and chiefs, she suspended the chiefs until they annulled the child marriages in their villages.

Child marriage disproportionately affects women and for too many girls, an early marriage is an escape from poverty. Many families force their daughters into an early marriage so that they have one less mouth to feed, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Some girls themselves saw marriage and early motherhood as the easiest way to change their lives.

One in three young women in Africa is married before the age of 18. While the rate of child marriage is slowly decreasing, doubling the rate of education will not reduce the number of child brides, according to the United Nations. The most effective change would be to change how girls are valued in villages, and society at large.