For some people, power and leadership mean acquiring as much property as one possibly can; while to others, these great qualities are used to help progress a jurisdiction and fight for the rights of the marginalized people.
The latter is what drives Theresa Kachindamoto, the senior chief in the Dedza District in Central Malawi whose passion is to terminate child marriages in her district.
Prior to being a chief, Kachindamoto treasured her job as a secretary at a city college in Zomba, a district in Southern Malawi. At no single time had she considered ever leaving her job of 27 years.
In 2003, chiefs from her rural area came calling and they told her to pack her bags and move back home to Dedza district, to take up the position of a senior chief. She had been chosen.
Although the mother of five and the youngest of 12 siblings, had ‘chiefdom’ blood running through her veins, she never expected to become a senior chief to the more than 900,000 people.
The chiefs insisted that the people had chosen her because she was “good with people” and that she was now the chief "whether I liked it or not", she recalls.
With humility, she left her job and put on her traditional crown of leadership and embarked on working for the people and more especially for young girls and women.
Tired of seeing girls as young as 12 years old walking around with their babies, and teenaged husbands, she decided to put to an end the traditional practice.
Using her authority, she made 50 of her sub-chiefs sign an agreement to end child marriage in her jurisdiction.
According to Aljazeera, when four male chiefs failed to adhere to the agreement, to stop underage marriages, Kachindamoto suspended them to set a precedent for others, only re-hiring them once they confirmed they had annulled the unions.
More than half of Malawi’s girls are married before the age of 18, a 2012 United Nations survey found. Malawi ranks 8th out of 20 countries with the highest child marriage rates in the world.
These numbers come as no surprise as the country only passed a law forbidding marriage before the age of 18, last year. Traditionally, under the customary law, and the constitution, Malawian children can still marry with parental consent.
Too poor to keep the children
Many parents in Malawi, opt to send off their children for early marriages as they are too poor to keep them.
Some parents who spoke to the outlet argue that keeping the children only make them (parents) poorer.
Statistics indicate that Malawi is one of the world’s poorest places standing at 160th out of 182 nations.
The problems associated with early marriages are many including termination of education to start and raise a family, poverty and even health complications which could even lead to death.
Emilida Misomali, part of a mothers group in the village of Chimoya, in Dedza district says they “see a lot of complications like cesarean births and girls cut as their bodies are too small to give birth."
What is even appalling, is how parents send off their young girls to camps for "kusasa fumbi" - which means cleansing.
Here, girls are taught how to please men by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Teacher(s) at the camps end up ‘de-flowering’ the young girls. Those who return home safe, they are preyed on by men- ‘hired’ by parents to take their girls’ pretty ‘flower’ or by prospective husbands to impregnate them.
It is no wonder in every 1 in 10 people in Malawi is infected with HIV. These rites of passage can send young girls to early graves due to sexually transmitted diseases.
It is because of these and many other reasons that chief Kachindamoto works hard to ensure that girls remain in school. Most of the time she funds their education and where she lacks capacity, she engages other well-wishers just to ensure the girls are educated.
The chief holds that with education the young girls can make better choices. It is also a means of delaying marriage for a few more years.
“I don’t want youthful marriages,” Chief Kachindamoto told UN Women. “They must go to school. No child should be found at home or doing household chores during school time.”
She also has a large network of village men and women who help her to enforce the laws. Some follow up to ensure that the girls placed in school are not pulled out.
In addition to organizing capacity building workshops and bringing in successful women leaders to mentor students in Dedza district schools, once in a while, she organizes trips to the city for the girls. This is in hope that they will be inspired to want to get an education and get careers like women in urban areas.
And she is not done. Top of her future agendas, is to have the Malawian parliament to review upwards the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21. And nothing will stop her. She has vowed to fight for girls’ rights to the end.
Image credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown