In Mulanje district – Malawi, one woman, has even the men running scared. Her name is Senior Chieftainess Chikumbu.
From 2015, she has annulled more than two-thousand marriages and seen 800 former child brides return to school.
The chieftainess spoke to SABC News about opposition she initially met from parents, who saw marrying off their daughters as an easy way out of poverty and how she is now using education to change long-held beliefs on harmful traditional practices in Malawi.
The chieftainess had worked as a teacher for just over 20 years. During which she ensured that she stood out for girls. Girls used to drop out of school and the villages had a growing number of teenage mothers.
“While I was here I saw most girls so small turning to marriage and it was paining me, I tried to rescue some whilst I was a teacher but it didn’t work well, because I had nothing to support me well.”
In 2009, a call came from the royal family that she needed to take up a new responsibility as a senior chieftainess. She took up the position officially in 2011. She gradually started talking about child marriages despite stiff resistance from the community that for a long time being used to marrying off girls from as early as the age of ten.
“ Most of them saying poverty some, peer pressure, other say it is because of tradition, I said no, there is no tradition, i am a custodian of culture but this is not our culture….”so I was giving an example of myself a teacher, you can be a teacher, nurse, ……they were not taking it.”
Malawi’s parliament passed a law, in 2015 that was aimed at forbidding marriage before the age of 18 but she says the fines are not high enough.
Since she begun the battle, Chieftainess Chikumbu has made a lot of progress. There are 2002 marriages that she has ended, about 800 girls went back to school, out of those some got to go to universities.
Seventeen year old Jennifer Phiri, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, is one such beneficiary, last year her mother forced her into an arranged marriage in the hope that she would earn some money from marrying her off.
Word, then got out to secret mothers – a group of women who work with Senior Chieftainess Chikumbu to rescue the girls and Phiri was saved from an abusive man. She has since gone to school and is slowly adapting to life as a child again.
In order to break the cycle of poverty in Malawi, Chieftainess Chikumbu believes the only way out is education.
“I don’t marry your girls, send them to school, when you educate the girl child you educate the nation.”
Despite primary schools being free in Malawi, the rescued girls add a strain to the family’s finances and the Senior Chieftainess uses her resources and most recently the the support of UN women to keep them in school.