In addition to freeing young girls from their child marriages, Theresa ensures that financial shortcomings do not stand in the way of the girls pursuing education.
Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, tribal ruler of the Dedza District in central Malawi, is on a mission to end child marriages in the Southeast African country. The powerful female member of tribal royalty has been waging a zero-tolerance war against the regressive practice of child marriage ever since she was entrusted with the title of the chief in 2003. Although her mission has not been easy, even making her the target of death threats from hard-line traditionalists, over the course of the past 16 years, Theresa has annulled almost 2,600 child marriages and sent the underage brides back to school.
According to a report by UN Women, Malawi has one of the world's highest rates of child marriages since almost half the girls there are married off before the age of 18. Furthermore, teen pregnancies contribute to 20-30 percent of maternal deaths in the country. The endemic practice robs young girls of the opportunity to pursue education, leaving them trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. However, with Theresa leading the movement against child marriages, thousands of underage brides have been given to break out of their marital bonds and return to school.
In addition to freeing young girls from their child marriages, Theresa ensures that financial shortcomings do not stand in the way of the girls pursuing education. In cases where the girls are unable to afford the full costs of tuition, fees, books, and uniform which, according to Marie Claire, amounts to $60 per year, the chief helps them out with money from her own pocket. "My opponents here say I am defying our traditional culture. But in my view we are redefining it," she says.
Through 5 long years of persistent political lobbying, in 2015, Theresa and her allies managed to get Malawi’s parliament to pass a bill that raised the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18 years for both sexes. Despite this monumental achievement has earned the chief accolades from activists and organizations across the globe, she points out that implementing the law is no easy task. "It is good that the law is on our side now, but enforcing it remains a big challenge. In many areas, people still believe a girl is ready to have sex and babies when she reaches puberty. We have to eradicate these old ways of thinking," she said.
Theresa has earned herself many enemies in the community for her mission to eradicate the outdated practice of child marriages. "Some have threatened me, saying things like, 'You are still quite young. Are you ready to die?' But I just tell them to go ahead and kill me, because it is the only way they will stop me from protecting our girls," the woman chief stated defiantly. While many locals believe Theresa, who has 5 sons, champions young women with such a passion because she has no daughters of her own, she believes the credit belongs to her father and the way in which he raised her.
We partnered with @Google for #WomensDay to spotlight 4 women’s rights defenders through VR.— UN Women (@UN_Women) March 14, 2019
One of them is Chief Theresa Kachindamoto of the Dedza District, Malawi. She's fighting to #EndChildMarriage in her country: https://t.co/gXLxXbeRTZ pic.twitter.com/Un7KRsmP6B
"When I was small, I thought he was a cruel man because he sent me away to boarding school. But later I understood that he wanted me to get ahead. He was strict because he loved me," she revealed. Theresa realized the true extent to which her father had shielded her away from their regressive ways only when the role of the chief fell to her in 2003 after her elder brother's death. "Even though I had older siblings, they said they picked me because I was the most educated and successful. It was my duty to agree," she revealed. The newly instated woman chief was devastated when she left her office job at a large college in the southern city of Zomba and returned home to see so many teen girls walking around with babies strapped to their backs instead of attending school.
"Growing up as a chief’s daughter, I realized, I had been shielded from how people in our villages really lived. I had to act—I could not allow mistreated and uneducated girls under my rule," Theresa remarked. Gathering all the subchiefs, she made them sign an agreement banning child marriage in their areas under traditional law and fired the ones who refused. While she has achieved so much in her time as the chief, Theresa has bigger dreams. "Eventually, it is my dream to have college scholarships and job-training centers to empower girls to fulfill their potential, so we will keep working toward that goal."