Theresa Kachindamoto could not have imagined ever leaving her job in a college in Zomba, in Southern Malawi. But, after 13-years of dedicated service, and following a 2012 United Nations survey, which found that more than half of the country’s girls were married before the age of 18, she was appointed the paramount chief, or Inkosi, of the Dedza District, with informal authority over more than 900,000 people to dissolve the litany of child marriages – and, in its stead, encourage education for both girls and boys.
Malawi - one of the poorest countries in the world, and has an HIV infection rate of 10% of the population - is the 8th out of 20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world and she was disturbed when she found the high rates of child marriage in her district. She couldn’t persuade the children’s parents to change their long-standing views, but she was able to get the 50 sub-chiefs in the district to agree to abolish early marriage and annul existing unions.
Theresa Kachindamoto had the blood of chiefs – Malawi’s traditional authority figures – running through her veins, as the youngest of 12 siblings, a woman, and a mother of five, but she never expected to become a senior chief to the more than 900,000 people. She was told that she had been chosen because she was good with people, and that she was now the chief.
Though mild-mannered, he fired four sub-chiefs responsible for areas where child marriages continued, later reinstating them when she had confirmation that these marriages had been annulled and convinced community leaders to change the civil code to ban early marriage. Since 2019, she has managed to have over 3,500 early marriages (which are customary in Malawi) annulled, with her actions bringing her international recognition from around the world.
She was shocked when she saw girls as young as 12 with babies and teenaged husbands, and was soon ordering the people to give up their ways. “I told the chiefs: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated,” she said, adding: “I said to the chiefs that this has got to stop, or I will dismiss them.”
A United Nations survey in 2012 found that more than half of the girls in Malawi were married before they reach 18, and ranked the country as having one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with particularly high rates in rural areas. The constitution and the customary law administered by the traditional authorities still say that children can marry if the parents agree.
Presenting a character at odds with her fearsome reputation of being Malawi’s top marriage terminator, mild-mannered Theresa Kachindamoto is determined to change a ‘custom’ which denies children of their childhood.