Over the past few decades, women around the world have made major gains when it comes to equality. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done. In some regions, girls and women are still subjected to abusive and unfair treatment. One cultural practice that harms girls and holds them back from reaching their full potential as human beings is child marriage.
Malawi and child marriage
Malawi is an African country located in the south of the continent. It is among the poorest countries on the planet, with 74% of the population receiving a daily wage of less than $1.90. Droughts, food shortages, and disease – over 10% of Malawians are HIV positive – contribute to widespread poverty and malnutrition.
According to UNICEF, 9% of Malawi girls are married by the age of 15, and 42% are married by their 18th birthday. In 2017, the Malawi Parliament introduced a law that raised the legal marriage age from 15 to 18, but this hasn’t been enough to solve the problem.
Child marriage is a longstanding tradition, and is often seen as a way to repay debt. In some areas, parents offer their daughters as wives in return for money. Therefore, the problem is tied into broader problems in Malawi society, namely poverty, gender inequality, and a lack of education.
The amazing work of Theresa Kachidamoto
Theresa Kachidamoto, leader of Malawi’s Dedza district, came to power in 2003 after her brother, the former Chief of Dedza, passed away. She moved from Zomba, a city she had called home for over 20 years, and returned to Dedza to take up her new post.
Kachidamoto quickly discovered that child marriage was a serious and widespread problem in Malawi communities. After consulting with the Elders who had chosen her for the role of Chief, she made it her mission to end the practice and challenge harmful cultural norms.
She told her 51 sub-chiefs (11 women and 40 men) that they were to outlaw such marriages, and annul those that had already taken place. These changes were not easy, and several of her male sub-chiefs disobeyed her orders. Fortunately, Kachidamoto had the strength of character to suspend them from their posts until they fell in line with her policies.
To date, she has overseen the annulment of 2,500 marriages, carrying out many annulment ceremonies in person. She has earned the nickname “The Terminator,” and has become famous for her zero-tolerance approach. Kachidamoto has received several death threats from people who want to cling to traditional practices, particularly families who benefit from the financial rewards of child marriage. However, she refuses to be intimidated, and continues her tireless work in empowering women and ensuring they receive access to education.
Kachidamoto has also worked to eradicate the tradition of “kusasa fumbi,” or “sexual cleansing.” This custom dictates that young girls, widows, and women who have had abortions spend several days in camps, during which they are made to have sex with older men. This places them at risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancies. The chief has ensured that all such camps in Dedza have been shut down, and she has issued a blanket ban on kusasa fumbi.
Kachidamoto’s “secret mothers”
As a Chief with authority over almost a million people, Kachidamoto cannot monitor every village. So, she devised an ingenious solution – a network of women who are responsible for contacting her whenever they know or suspect that a child marriage is about to happen in their community. These women are known as “secret mothers.”
When a secret mother alerts Kachidamoto, the chief works with local elders and leaders to stop the marriage proceeding. Sometimes, the chief and her informers rescue girls from abusive situations. Some men work as “secret fathers,” but the work falls mainly to women, who are better-placed in their communities to gather this kind of information. Alongside informers, the chief has also appointed female volunteers who provide healthcare and emotional support to girls who have already been married.
What does the future hold for Malawi?
Kachidamoto’s goal is to ensure that the 2017 law is upheld across not only her own district, but the whole country. She plans to continue working to build a country in which young girls and boys are never forced to marry before they are ready. By creating a society that values education and gender equality, she will improve not only the lives of individual girls but also their families and the state of Malawi as a whole. As Chief Kachidamoto says, “When girls are educated, everything is possible.”