Thirteen years ago Theresa Kachindamoto was a secretary at a city college in Zomba, a district within Southern Malawi.
She had no desire to return home to her birthplace of Monkey Bay, but with the blood of the chiefs – Malawi’s traditional authority figures – coercing through her veins, she always maintained ties with the place.
As the youngest of 12 siblings, a woman, and a mother of five, Kachindamoto never expected to become a senior chief to more than 900,000 people, but that’s exactly what she became after being chosen as the next senior chief.
She was told that she had been chosen because she was “good with people” and that she was now the chief “whether I liked it or not”, she recalls.
Kachindamoto was appalled to find girls as young as 12 with babies and teenage husbands, and soon ordered people to give up their ways. She revealed, “I told them: whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated”.
A 2012 United Nations survey uncovered that more than half of Malawi’s girls were married before the age of 18. It ranked Malawi 8th out of 20 countries thought to have the highest child-marriage rates in the world.
Last year, Malawi’s parliament passed a law forbidding marriage before the age of 18. However, under customary law of the traditional authorities, and the constitution, Malawian children can still marry with parental consent.
Emilida Misomali is part of a mother’s group in the village of Chimoya in Dedza district, and part of her work involves warning parents about the long-term ills of early marriage and childbirth, but she believes it often falls on deaf ears.
She has remarked “Most of them say ‘It’s better that she gets married. We cant afford to keep her… she will make us poorer’”. Misomali also stated that regardless of the rationale, whether better education or wellbeing “stubborn parents” wont stop giving away their children.
She added, “We see a lot of complications, like cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth”.