MALAWI has the unenviable reputation as the country with one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. Some girls as young as nine have been forced mostly by families into these outlawed unions.
In a country that has outlawed marriages below the age of 18, but where customs supersede the law, traditional chiefs are under fire for their involvement in overseeing such marriages.
To be born in this Southern African country that ranks among the poorest in the world and has worrying HIV/AIDS statistics has spells doom for children.
It is against this backdrop, a female chief, who has defied traditions by assuming such an influential position, has received global acclaim by embarking on a mission to eradicate child marriages in Malawi.
Theresa John Ndovie Kachindamoto, the most improbable monarch when she assumed the reins and informal authority over more than 900 000 people in the Dedza district in central Malawi, has overcome detractors wishing her death along the way of terminating thousands of such marriages since 2003.
To date, she has terminated a total of 2 549 child marriages in a breakthrough that has cost some sub-chiefs their positions.
In an interview in Johannesburg, she spoke about how hers was an unlikely rise to chiefdom.
Born in 1958, the youngest of twelve siblings in a family of traditional rulers in the Dedza district around Lake Malawi, she was working as a secretary at a college in Zomba district south of Malawi when her family (royal family) approached her in 2001 to take the throne.
It had fallen vacant after her father and all other heirs to the throne passed on.
“By then, I was married and my husband did not want to leave the city,” said Kachindamoto.
The husband was not open to the idea of her leaving but he was left with no choice as he had ever been aware Kachindamoto had royal blood and, no matter the improbability, might one day return to take the throne.
In 2003, she accepted the position and returned to Monkey Bay, where she assumed the traditional red robes, beads and leopard skin headband as Kachindamoto VII. Then-president Bakili Muluzi installed her to the throne.
The new paramount chief was angry when she found the spiralling rates of child marriage in her district.
She recalled one day early February in 2004 when a young girl aged 13 had a wailing toddler on her.
“When I asked her to take the baby to its mother, she replied the baby was hers. I was shocked,” Kandichamoto said.
“When I pressed her to show me who the father is, she pointed at a young boy, aged 17, who was playing football in the field. When I summoned the young man, he boastfully confirmed the baby was his. When the young girl started breast feeding the baby I was convinced beyond doubt they were telling the truth.”
That is when it dawned on the newly crowned monarch the extent of problem in her kingdom.
“I realised I could not be chief to all these households and half of these are these are young moms and fathers, I had to do something about it.”
It is when the globally-renowned mission to forcefully end child marriages and insisting on education for boys and girls started.
With Malawi battling high level unemployment and poverty, many parents loathed pleas by Kandichamoto to keep their girls in school or her assurances that an educated girl would bring them greater prosperity eventually.
She met resistance from parents and the couples themselves, particularly poor parents who had been paid the dowry.
“The public reaction was that I had no right to overturn tradition. To them, I was a mother of five boys, without girls hence had no right to lecture others on the upbringing of girls,” she said.
Realising that she could not change the traditionally set mentality of parents Kachindamoto instead changed the law.
“We enacted by laws that no chief should allow child marriages in their area,” said Kandichamoto
In unison with 50 sub-chiefs in the district they agreed to abolish early marriage and annul existing unions.
She fired four sub-chiefs responsible for areas where child marriages continued.
Later, they were reinstated after toeing the line.
Kachindamoto worked with groups of parents, teachers, village development committees, religious leaders and non-government organizations to rid the area of these marriages.
“We have introduced resource centres and technical schools that teach sewing welding so that these kids can sustain themselves to avoid parents saying there is no profit of these kids going to school and sitting at home upon finishing,” she said.
Through a network of “secret” mothers and fathers in the villages, Kandichamoto checks that parents are not pulling girls out of school.
With a population of 18 million, Malawi, with its high poverty levels, also has an HIV infection rate of 10 percent.
A United Nations survey in 2012 found that more than half of the girls in Malawi were married before they reached 18.
The rates are high particularly high rates in rural areas where young girls are also subject to sexually abusive traditions that include sexual initiation camps for kusasa fumbi (cleansing).
In 2015, Malawi passed a law that forbade marriage before the age of 18.
“That was the most profound moment of my life. I was thrilled when I saw the ruling party and opposition standing side by side in their stance against child marriages,” she beamed
Following the success of the initiatives in Dedza, United Nations Women and the UN Children’s Fund are planning to work with traditional leaders elsewhere to replicate the best practices of Kachindamoto to reduce child marriages.
She has also been travelling around the Southern African Development (SADC) bloc, of which Malawi is one of 16 members.
Kachindamoto has been pivotal in the signing of a declaration by traditional leaders to abolish child marriages.
“Educate a girl and you educate the whole area and eventually, the world. We have agreed as SADC traditional leaders to put the education of our children first as we want to see a bright future for our territories,” said the monarch. – CAJ News