How Chief Theresa Kachin­damoto is sav­ing Malawi’s child brides

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - Contents -

In Malawi, one in two girls is sub­ject to ar­ranged mar­riage be­fore the age of 18. As a high­rank­ing woman in a man’s world, Chief Theresa Kachin­damoto is on a mis­sion to em­power girls in her ru­ral chief­dom. She has res­cued 2 600 child brides, fired male sub­chiefs who op­pose her, and sent thou­sands of girls back to school to give them a chance at a fu­ture

Se­nior Chief Theresa Kachin­damoto, tribal ruler of the Dedza Dis­trict in cen­tral Malawi, emerges from the car wear­ing elec­tric-blue cer­e­mo­nial robes. The in­hab­i­tants of the vil­lage of Tseka, hud­dled on reed mats, fall into tense si­lence. Chick­ens, dogs and small chil­dren scat­ter as the chief walks solemnly to­wards a seat­ing area out­side the head­man’s hut. This is not a so­cial visit, and ev­ery­one knows it. Theresa, a woman of tow­er­ing re­pute, has come to per­form what she con­sid­ers her most cru­cial of­fi­cial duty: to end the il­le­gal mar­riage of an un­der­age girl and send her back to school.

Beatrice Kapito, a tiny 16-year-old in a pink T-shirt, sits at Theresa’s feet. Beatrice was mar­ried at 13 and has a tod­dler son named Moses, who squirms on her lap. Her hus­band sits be­side them with his head bowed. As a pow­er­ful fe­male mem­ber of tribal roy­alty in Malawi, the 59-year-old chief is fight­ing a zero-tol­er­ance war against the prac­tice of child mar­riage. And de­spite ob­sta­cles, in­clud­ing death threats from hard-line tra­di­tion­al­ists, she is win­ning.

In 2017 alone, the chief an­nulled some 200 child mar­riages in her dis­trict. Dur­ing her 14-year reign, she has ter­mi­nated the mar­riages of roughly 2 600 child brides and helped the girls fin­ish their ed­u­ca­tion, of­ten by sub­si­dis­ing their school­ing. She also en­sures that any off­spring, like Moses, are taken care of by grand­par­ents or other fam­ily mem­bers

while their young mothers at­tend class. To­day it is Beatrice’s turn. ‘I am nervous but ex­cited,’ the teenager says in a hushed voice be­fore the pro­ceed­ings be­gin. ‘I can start my life all over again.’

Each year, 15 mil­lion girls world­wide, or 28 ev­ery minute, be­come un­der­age brides. It is against the law in Malawi for any­one un­der the age of 18 to marry, yet, due to the persistence of out­dated cus­toms, the coun­try has one of the world’s high­est rates of child mar­riage. Al­most one in two girls is a bride be­fore her 18th birth­day – some be­fore the age of 15 – ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Chil­dren’s Fund (Unicef). Ex­treme poverty, gen­der in­equal­ity, and lack of ed­u­ca­tion make the prob­lem par­tic­u­larly acute in Malawi.

Theresa ac­cepts no ex­cuses. Rul­ing over al­most a mil­lion peo­ple in the Dedza Dis­trict, she has fired male sub­chiefs who re­fused to ban child mar­riage, and built up a large net­work of fe­male in­form­ers, known as ‘se­cret mothers’, across the dis­trict’s 545 vil­lages to en­sure her rules are obeyed. ‘The chief has cre­ated a ge­nius sys­tem for tack­ling child mar­riage from the ground up,’ says Habiba Os­man, a pro­gramme spe­cial­ist at the UN Women’s Malawi of­fice in the cap­i­tal, Li­longwe. ‘It works be­cause she has in­volved the en­tire com­mu­nity.’

Beatrice grew up with five broth­ers and sis­ters in Tseka vil­lage. Her par­ents made bricks for as lit­tle as R13 a day, roughly the av­er­age wage in Malawi’s ru­ral agri­cul­tural ar­eas. ‘When I was 12, my mother said she couldn’t af­ford to feed me and told me to find a hus­band,’ she says. While many girls are mar­ried off to much older men – it is com­mon for par­ents to of­fer their daugh­ters as brides to pay off debts – Beatrice mar­ried an 18-year-old neigh­bour, Mikiyasi Mkuthe, who is now 22. ‘He had just moved out of his fam­ily home, and he wanted a wife to help him in the house. He promised to give me food.’ Af­ter the wed­ding, Beatrice dropped out of grade 8 and be­came preg­nant with Moses, now three. She soon re­alised that her hus­band, also a school dropout, couldn’t sup­port them. ‘He did piece­meal work for cash, but it was never enough. I had to sell bar­be­cued mice on the road­side to sur­vive.’

Theresa heard about Beatrice through a ‘se­cret mother’; she has at least one in ev­ery vil­lage, in most cases a fe­male el­der who qui­etly ob­serves lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties and re­ports back to her. It took time for Beatrice’s mar­riage to come to light how­ever, be­cause her par­ents and other lo­cals in Tseka tried to hide it. When Theresa ad­dresses the as­sem­bled vil­lagers, her fury is pal­pa­ble. ‘You are fools. What were you think­ing?’ she rails, rais­ing her arms so that her robes fan out like the wings of a gi­ant bird. ‘This girl is far too young to be a mother. You will never im­prove your lives un­less you ed­u­cate your daugh­ters.’

Keep­ing girls in school, the chief be­lieves, is the sin­gle most im­por­tant fac­tor in break­ing the cy­cle of ru­ral poverty and pre­vent­ing life­long prob­lems for women – a view sup­ported by the UN and other global bod­ies. In Malawi, an es­ti­mated 46% of girls aban­don their ed­u­ca­tion be­fore be­gin­ning high school, mostly due to early mar­riage and teen preg­nancy. Ac­cord­ing to a World Bank re­port in June 2017, ev­ery year of sec­ondary school­ing com­pleted in­creases an in­di­vid­ual girl’s fu­ture earn­ing power by 18%; end­ing child mar­riage world­wide could add $500 bil­lion per year to the global econ­omy.

Theresa tells Beatrice she is now of­fi­cially di­vorced. ‘From this mo­ment, you are mar­ried to the class­room,’ she says. ‘If you study hard, you could be­come a doc­tor, a teacher, or a po­lice­woman. You must have a vi­sion for your fu­ture.’ If the girls can’t af­ford the full costs of tu­ition, books and uni­forms, which amount to about R700 per year, the chief of­ten makes up the short­fall from her own pocket. In a calm but stern voice, she or­ders Beatrice’s mother to babysit Moses on week­days (and asks how she can af­ford to wear nice clothes but not feed her own daugh­ter), and says now ex-hus­band Mikiyasi must ‘rise to the chal­lenge of find­ing reg­u­lar work’ so he can help sup­port the child. Beatrice, tear­ful and over­whelmed, thanks the chief and prom­ises to do her best. ‘I can’t wait to go back to school and be with all my friends again,’ she says.

Back at her own vil­lage of Mtakataka, an hour’s drive from Tseka over dirt tracks, Theresa changes into her or­di­nary clothes – a mul­ti­coloured African tu­nic and a Malaw­ian sarong called a chitenje. She is more re­laxed with­out her re­gal fin­ery. Her eyes are kind and she has a gap-toothed smile. Half of her of­fice, a small brick room with a con­crete floor, is oc­cu­pied by a stack of mat­tresses for a new school­girls’ dor­mi­tory that she has helped fund. Her desk is squashed in one cor­ner,

piled high with pa­pers and pho­tos. Only her wooden chief’s chair, carved in the shape of a huge sea ea­gle clutch­ing a fish in its talons, al­ludes to her for­mi­da­ble sta­tus.

‘My op­po­nents here say I am de­fy­ing tra­di­tional cul­ture,’ she says. ‘But in my view we are re­defin­ing it.’ Her ul­ti­mate goal is not just to ter­mi­nate ex­ist­ing child mar­riages; it is to pre­vent them in the first place. Af­ter five years of po­lit­i­cal lob­by­ing, Theresa and oth­ers suc­ceeded in get­ting Malawi’s par­lia­ment to pass a bill in 2015 set­ting the min­i­mum mar­riage age for both sexes at 18. Such ef­forts earned the chief a Global Lead­er­ship Award from the in­ter­na­tional women’s ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion Vi­tal Voices, pre­sented in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. at a cer­e­mony at­tended by Hil­lary Clin­ton.

‘It is good that the law is on our side now, but en­forc­ing it re­mains a chal­lenge,’ Theresa says. ‘In many ar­eas peo­ple still be­lieve a girl is ready to have sex and ba­bies when she reaches pu­berty. We have to erad­i­cate this old way of think­ing.’ Many male el­ders ar­gue that the chief is de­stroy­ing their way of life. ‘Some have threat­ened me, say­ing, “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 pro­tect­ing our girls.’ Such fear­less­ness is in her DNA: in the Malaw­ian lan­guage Chichewa, ‘Kachin­damoto’ means ‘Don’t mess with fire.’

The chief is mar­ried, with five sons be­tween 19 and 30. Many lo­cal peo­ple, she says, spec­u­late that she cham­pi­ons young women be­cause she has no daugh­ters of her own. But she be­lieves the rea­son lies in her own up­bring­ing. Her fa­ther was the area’s se­nior chief, and she was the youngest of his 12 chil­dren. ‘When I was small, I thought he was a cruel man be­cause he sent me away to board­ing school,’ she says. ‘Later I un­der­stood that he wanted me to get ahead. He was strict be­cause he loved me.’ In her early 20s, Theresa landed an of­fice job at a col­lege in the south­ern city of Zomba, Malawi’s prein­de­pen­dence cap­i­tal, 320km from her home vil­lage. She worked there for 27 years and loved see­ing young women whose stud­ies em­pow­ered them to pur­sue ca­reers and achieve fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.

Theresa thought she had left vil­lage life be­hind when, in mid-2003, she re­ceived a sur­prise visit from 15 mem­bers of her tribal royal fam­ily. Her el­der brother, who had taken over from their fa­ther as Dedza’s se­nior chief, had died. The fam­ily del­e­ga­tion had come to tell her that they had cho­sen her to re­place him. Se­nior fe­male chiefs are ex­tremely rare in Malawi, so Theresa was stunned. ‘Even though I had older sib­lings, they said they picked me be­cause I was the most ed­u­cated and suc­cess­ful,’ she says. ‘It was my duty to agree.’

Once she was in­stalled as chief back in Mtakataka later that year, she was dis­tressed to see so many teen girls walk­ing around with ba­bies strapped to their backs in­stead of wear­ing school uni­forms. ‘Grow­ing up as a chief ’s daugh­ter, I re­alised, I had been shielded from how peo­ple in our vil­lages re­ally lived. I had to act. I could not al­low this mis­treat­ment un­der my rule.’

The chief gath­ered her 51 sub­chiefs (40 men and 11 women who over­see around 10 vil­lages each) and made them sign an agree­ment ban­ning child mar­riage un­der tra­di­tional law.


She then be­gan vis­it­ing vil­lages to per­son­ally an­nul ex­ist­ing unions. When she dis­cov­ered that four male sub­chiefs had ig­nored the agree­ment – aside from their at­tach­ment to tra­di­tion, lo­cal chiefs usu­ally re­ceive gifts of money or cows from par­ents for au­tho­ris­ing wed­dings – she fired them. ‘I was fu­ri­ous. Women in our cul­ture are not sup­posed to swear. But I am se­nior chief, so I swore at them very loudly,’ she says with a throaty laugh. Par­ents who flout the ban are fined up to 10 chick­ens or one goat, a hefty sum in ru­ral Malawi.

Theresa also cracked down on other abu­sive tra­di­tions such as kusasa fumbi – sex­ual cleans­ing – an ini­ti­a­tion rite com­mon in Malawi and other pock­ets of Africa. Pubescent girls, along with wid­ows and women who have had an abor­tion, are sent to three-day-long camps and forced to have un­pro­tected sex with hired older men, known as ‘hye­nas’ to ‘cleanse them of evil spir­its’ and pre­pare them for mar­riage. Be­lieved to help pre­vent dis­ease, the rite does the op­po­site: It in­creases the risk of girls con­tract­ing HIV, which af­fects 10% of Malawi’s pop­u­la­tion, as well as other sex­ual in­fec­tions, and ex­poses them to un­wanted preg­nancy. ‘We have erad­i­cated these camps en­tirely in the Dedza Dis­trict,’ says the chief.

Child mar­riage is tak­ing longer to wipe out be­cause it can be harder to de­tect. Dedza com­prises many re­mote ham­lets spread over vast scrub­land, and in some fam­i­lies, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell whether a young girl is a daugh­ter, sib­ling or spouse. In the case of Dolophina Makunje, 14, it took un­til she was al­most eight months preg­nant be­fore one of the chief’s se­cret mothers iden­ti­fied her as a child bride. ‘We lived far from the main vil­lage, so I didn’t see or talk to many peo­ple,’ says Dolophina, who is small for her age and looks even younger when she’s wear­ing her school uni­form. ‘My hus­band used to beat me if I stayed away from the house,’ she says. ‘I was very re­lieved when women sent by the chief came to res­cue me.’

Dolophina was or­phaned at the age of nine – her par­ents died within months of each other from un­known ill­nesses – and she went to live with her mar­ried older brother. When she was 12, a 32-year-old man of­fered to marry her and gave her brother some chick­ens in ex­change for her. Her hus­band used her as a labourer in his fields while he went drink­ing, she says, and then he used her for sex when he re­turned. ‘When I be­came preg­nant last year, I didn’t know ex­actly what was hap­pen­ing to me or how to take care of my­self,’ Dolophina says. She had no idea how to get to a pre­na­tal clinic and did not see a doc­tor at all dur­ing her preg­nancy un­til she was res­cued. Trag­i­cally, when she was taken to a hospi­tal to give birth, her baby girl was still­born.

Luck­ily, Dolophina was spot­ted by a se­cret mother in time to save her own life. Malawi has one of the world’s high­est rates of ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity, ac­cord­ing to Unicef, with preg­nant teens mak­ing up 20 to 30% of deaths. The risk in­creases sig­nif­i­cantly if the girl is un­der 15. The Dedza Dis­trict has only two women’s clin­ics ded­i­cated to re­pro­duc­tive health, funded un­til re­cently by the United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNPFA). That fund­ing has been cut in the wake of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­in­state­ment in Jan­uary 2017 of the so-called global gag rule, an ex­ec­u­tive or­der block­ing $8.8 bil­lion in US fi­nan­cial aid to UNPFA and other health or­gan­i­sa­tions. Habiba Os­man of UN Women says the cuts are hav­ing ‘a cat­a­strophic ef­fect’ on the abil­ity of lo­cal clin­ics in Malawi to as­sist fam­ily plan­ning and pre­vent teen preg­nan­cies. ‘Vul­ner­a­ble child brides are the hard­est hit,’ says Habiba.


Se­cret mother Stella Inoki, 65, says it is cru­cial to act fast to min­imise the trauma and dam­age caused by child mar­riage. ‘We are like dogs that go hunt­ing,’ she says. ‘The sooner we find child brides, the more chance we have of sav­ing their fu­tures.’ Stella has been a se­cret mother since 2010, when Theresa be­gan re­cruit­ing her net­work. The chief en­listed some men, or ‘se­cret fa­thers’, too, but Stella thinks women are bet­ter suited to the role. ‘Our job is to keep our eyes open, lis­ten to ru­mours, and ask ca­sual ques­tions all the time,’ she says. ‘Peo­ple think it’s nor­mal for older women like me to stick our noses into ev­ery­one’s busi­ness, so we arouse less sus­pi­cion.’

In ad­di­tion to the se­cret mothers, the chief has a group of fe­male vol­un­teers in each of her vil­lages to take care of child brides. ‘The first thing we do is take the girls for tests for HIV and other sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases,’ says Brenda Dengu, 50, a vol­un­teer in the vil­lage of Solo­moti, near the chief’s vil­lage. ‘If a girl is preg­nant, we look af­ter her un­til she has had the baby. She must breast­feed the child for six months, ac­cord­ing to the chief’s rules, and then re­turn to school. The in­fant is put in the care of the girl’s par­ents or other com­mu­nity mem­bers un­til she has fin­ished her stud­ies.’

Brenda, a tall woman in a flo­ral dress, joined the women’s group be­cause she knows first­hand the chief is right. ‘Our fam­ily was poor and my hus­band wanted our daugh­ter to marry early, but I in­sisted she com­plete her ed­u­ca­tion,’ she says. Brenda’s daugh­ter, now 25, is a pri­mary-school teacher. With her first few pay­checks, she bought Brenda a fridge, some­thing she had al­ways cov­eted. ‘It has changed my life,’ she says. ‘Not only can I keep our food fresh, I use it to make chilled sorghum soda drinks to sell in our vil­lage.’

Once she’d re­cov­ered her strength in early 2017, Dolophina re­turned to classes at Solo­moti Com­mu­nity Sec­ondary School. She re­ceives some fi­nan­cial help from the chief, who has her own farm and re­ceives oc­ca­sional do­na­tions for her ac­tivism from lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­this­ers. Af­ter fin­ish­ing her home­work, she also does odd jobs like fetch­ing wa­ter and farm work to sup­port her­self. ‘The days are long, but I am so happy,’ she says. ‘When I was mar­ried, I cried be­cause I thought there was noth­ing in my life to look for­ward to ever again. Now, I have free­dom.’ Most for­mer child brides in Dedza say they want to be­come teach­ers, nurses, of­fice work­ers or po­lice of­fi­cers. But Dolophina, whose favourite sub­jects are maths and sci­ence, wants to be an en­gi­neer.

Still, it’s far from smooth sail­ing. For­mer child brides suf­fer so­cial stigma, es­pe­cially when they re­turn to school, and are of­ten preyed upon sex­u­ally by older teenage boys who think they’re easy tar­gets. Len­ford Kayira, the deputy head teacher at the Solo­moti school, says the staff works closely with Theresa to ed­u­cate male and fe­male stu­dents about vi­o­lence against women and other abuse.

‘We don’t tol­er­ate bul­ly­ing or ha­rass­ment, and we teach the stu­dents that girls are equal and must be val­ued,’ Len­ford says. Although the num­ber of boys go­ing on to col­lege is higher than girls, the ra­tio is slowly im­prov­ing. ‘Girls are se­ri­ous about their stud­ies,’ he adds. Only 35% of col­lege stu­dents in Malawi are fe­male, ac­cord­ing to Unesco, but that has jumped from un­der 10% a few decades ago.

Theresa is aware of the fur­ther chal­lenges ahead, too. Her life­style is fru­gal for a chief, and she strug­gles to keep up with the costs of pay­ing for girls in her dis­trict to at­tend school. Although fees and other ex­penses for sec­ondary school are rel­a­tively low, her suc­cess in end­ing so many child mar­riages means it all adds up. For­mer child brides also of­ten cre­ate ex­tra fi­nan­cial strain on their fam­i­lies when they re­turn home, but the chief in­sists that ev­ery­one must make sac­ri­fices to en­sure girls get an ed­u­ca­tion. The fu­ture pay­off will be worth it, she be­lieves. ‘Even­tu­ally, it is my dream to have col­lege schol­ar­ships and job-train­ing cen­tres to em­power girls to ful­fil their po­ten­tial,’ Theresa says, ‘so we will keep work­ing to­ward that goal.’

Aside from an­nulling thou­sands of child mar­riages, one of Theresa’s proud­est achieve­ments is how she is chang­ing the an­cient mind-set of the men un­der her rule. ‘More and more male sub­chiefs and vil­lage head­men are com­ing to me to say they re­alise the old ways are bad. They want to know how to im­prove the lives of girls.’ One of the male sub­chiefs she fired for break­ing her ban six years ago, Pear­son Chibanga, re­turned to her in 2016 to in­form her that he had worked hard in an un­of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity to help his area erad­i­cate all child mar­riages. Af­ter check­ing his claim, Theresa gra­ciously re­in­stated him to his po­si­tion.

‘I was blink­ered,’ says Pear­son, 59, a skinny man in an over­size brown suit. ‘We didn’t ques­tion child mar­riage be­cause it was our tra­di­tion, but the chief made me see how dam­ag­ing it was.’

Still, it’s too much to hope that men like Pear­son have changed com­pletely. While sit­ting next to the chief, he lets slip that he was thrilled when he got his job back be­cause ‘men are born to lead.’ Chief Theresa Kachin­damoto gives him a look wor­thy of her don’t-mess-with-fire pedi­gree.

‘Not for much longer,’ she shoots back. mc

BOT­TOM Theresa walks with el­der women.

LEFT Men and women per­form tra­di­tional dances out­side of Chief Theresa Kachin­damoto’s home.

BE­LOW Theresa pre­sid­ing over Beatrice Kapito’s an­nul­ment cer­e­mony.


CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT A ‘se­cret mother’; a group of girls whose mar­riages have been an­nulled dance out­side Theresa’s home; Beatrice Kapito (cen­tre right) and now ex-hus­band Mikiyasi Mkuthe with their son, Moses

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