Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and some of the nation’s tribal practices—including child marriage and the subjugation of women—have lagged far behind the humanitarian standards set in other places in the last century.
Luckily, one regional district in the Eastern African nation chose to elect a woman leader named Theresa Kachindamoto in 2003. And in the 16 years since she came into power, she’s used her position to bring her people into the present day in a way that has garnered her the respect of the people she governs.
Theresa Kachindamoto was born the youngest of 12 siblings in the Dedza District, which resides near Lake Malawi along the border between Malawi and Mozambique.
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After working as a secretary at a college in southern Malawi for 27 years, her people elected her due to a reputation for being “good with people.” She was quoted in later years as being told that she was informed of her new leadership role whether she wanted it or not, but it didn’t take long for her to take that role—reluctant or no—and use it to save the lives of thousands of girls in her district.
Malawi remains one of the world’s most concentrated regions for child marriages, where half of the girls who live in the nation are married before their 18th birthday, and as many as a quarter of the country’s maternal deaths occur in instances of teen pregnancy—which can cause severe complications due to increased difficulty gaining weight and getting the adequate nutrition.
Kachindamoto used her role to annul over 1,500 child marriages as of 2017, sending the girls who were married before they could complete their educations back to school. It took a step towards ending the cycle of poverty found in Malawi, where a statistic reported in 2017 by the UN suggested that nearly 45 percent of young girls are unable to remain in school past eighth grade.
She didn’t stop there, though. Although it took years of changing culture and influencing the political leaders, Kachindamoto truly ushered in a sense of permanence in the new era for Malawi women by passing legislation to ensure the old cultural practices didn’t persist.
“I told [my people]: ‘Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated.’”
She helped the entire nation of Malawi to adopt a constitutional amendment that raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, causing a massive jump in the nation’s possibilities for girls to continue attending school. And while the tribal practices may still sometimes fall outside of the country’s laws, she’s done her part within her own community to educate families on why it helps them in the long run to end the practice of these early marriages.
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When she first went on a tour of her district back in the early 2000s, she met with girls and women who had been married as early as 12 years old. Oftentimes, she discovered, their families weren’t permitting the marriages out of spite, but rather out of financial need; they were seeing the marriage of their family to another as a way to increase the workforce early and help put food on the table.
Instead, though, she told them that it was important to keep their girls in school.
“When girls are educated, everything is possible,” she said, speaking at 16th Annual Vital Voices Global Partnership Award Ceremony in Washington, D.C.
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She didn’t just do it for the young women, either. In 2015, she explained that over 150 of the marriages that she had annulled were boy-fathers, not just girl-wives—and she explained that boys or girls, she never wanted to walk through her district and see children who were being kept home from school no matter what.
“I don’t want youthful marriages, they must go to school. We have now set our own laws to govern everybody within my area when it comes to marriages and will leave no sacred cow. […] No child should be found loitering at home; gardening or doing any house hold chores during school time. No village head, GVH or church clergy to officiate marriage before scrutinizing the birth dates of the couple,” she explained, speaking to Nyasa Times.
The change will be slow-growing, but the country has already seen some positive steps taken. Malawi has committed to a handful of United Nations pledges that take them in the right direction—and hopefully, with legislation banning the practice of child marriages on a national level, these pledges will be even easier to convince people to implement.