Every year, 15 million girls get married as children, with one in three girls in the developing world married before they are 18, according to campaign group Girls Not Brides.
Malawi happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world with one in 10 people being infected with HIV
Malawians are known for certain traditions which include sending girls bound for marriage away to camps for “Kusasa Fumbi” (meaning cleansing).
“Kukasa Fumbi” has, sadly, advanced the regional spread of HIV — in a country where one in 10 is infected with the virus — and led to numerous unwanted pregnancies.
This is so because, at these sexual initiation camps, girls are taught how to please men by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Some “graduate” only by having sex with the teacher.
Others return home untouched, only to be preyed on by a local “hyena” – men hired by parents to take their girls’ virginity, or by prospective husbands to impregnate them.
After learning the high rates of child marriage in her district of Dedza around Lake Malawi, senior female chief Theresa Kachindamoto has since been fighting tirelessly to end this practice and giving young girls hope of an education.
For Kachindamoto, who spent 27 years as a secretary at a city college in the Malawi district of Zomba, that troubling safety net of child marriages had become entirely unacceptable, wrote Al Jazeera.
Kachindamoto, who is the paramount chief, or Inkosi, of the Dedza District in the central region of Malawi, is known for advocating for education for both girls and boys and forcefully dissolving child marriages.
Kachindamoto’s pleas to parents to keep their girls in school saw little success. Realizing that she couldn’t change the traditionally set mentality of parents, Kachindamoto instead changed the law.
She got her 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to abolish early marriage under customary law, and annul any existing unions in her area of authority, according to Al Jazeera.
She subsequently became noted for firing sub-chiefs responsible for areas where child marriages continued and later hiring them back once she verified they adhered to the new law.
She was able to persuade community leaders to change the civil code to ban early marriage.
Kachindamoto is noted for paying for and finding other sponsors to pay for the schooling of girls whose parents cannot afford school fees.
By 2016, she had managed to have over 850 early marriages annulled and sent all the children involved back to school and her actions have brought her international recognition.
Through her network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” in the villages, Kachindamoto is able to monitor parents and ensure girls are kept in school. She faced death threats but those did not stop her from her goal.
“I don’t care, I don’t mind. I’ve said whatever, we can talk, but these girls will go back to school,” she said.
To date, she is reported to have annulled more than 1,000 marriages and earned the nickname “Terminator” of child marriages.
Kachindamoto’s vision of ending child marriage has earned her recognition from UN Women which supported her in her campaigns and activities.
Despite the view that early marriage deprives girls of an education, increases the risk of domestic violence, and death, the practice persists.
A recent report by Girls Not Brides revealed that globally, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children and 17 per cent of them, or 125 million, live in Africa.
It added that about 39 per cent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18 and all African countries face the challenge of child marriage.
A 2012 United Nations survey found that more than half of the girls in Malawi were married before they reach 18, and ranked Malawi as having one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with particularly high rates in rural areas.
In 2015, Malawi passed a law that forbade marriage before the age of 18. However, there is a loophole which analysts say could allow children to marry if the parents agree.