Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, tribal ruler of the Dedza District in central Malawi, emerges from the car wearing electric-blue ceremonial robes. The 100 or so 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 toward a seating area outside the headman’s hut. This is not a social visit, and everyone knows it. Kachindamoto, 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 Kachindamoto’s feet. Kapito 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, a poor, landlocked country of 18 million people in Southeast Africa, the 59-year-old chief is fighting a zero-tolerance war against the endemic practice of child marriage. And despite obstacles, such as 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 subsidizing 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 Kapito’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.”
Kachindamoto accepts no excuses. Ruling over almost 1 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 program specialist at the UN Women’s Malawi office in the capital, Lilongwe. “It works because she has involved the entire community.”
Kachindamoto heard about Kapito through one of her secret-mother informers; 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 Kapito’s marriage to come to light, however, because her parents and other locals in Tseka tried to hide it. When Kachindamoto starts to address 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 percent of girls leave school before the eighth grade, 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 percent, and ending child marriage worldwide could add $500 billion per year to the global economy. Educating girls has “a multiplier effect,” the report says, not only increasing the health and wealth of women, but benefiting the lives of their children and boosting entire communities.
Kachindamoto turns to Kapito and tells her that 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, fees, books, and uniform, which amount to $60 per year, the chief often makes up the shortfall from her own pocket. In a calm but stern voice, she then orders Kapito’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 Mkuthe must “rise to the challenge of finding regular work” so he can help support the child. Kapito, 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, a 70-minute drive from Tseka over dirt tracks, Kachindamoto changes into her ordinary clothes—a multicolored African tunic and a Malawian sarong called a chitenje—and sits in her office to talk. 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 our traditional culture,” she says. “But in my view we are redefining it.” Her ultimate goal is not to terminate existing child marriages; it is to prevent them in the first place. After five years of political lobbying, Kachindamoto and other campaigners 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 the admiration of actress Emma Watson, who visited Mtakataka in October 2016 in her role as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. In March 2017, Kachindamoto also received a Global Leadership Award in Washington, D.C., at a ceremony attended by Hillary Clinton, from the international women’s advocacy organization Vital Voices. “It is good that the law is on our side now, but enforcing it remains a big challenge,” Kachindamoto says.“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.”