DURBAN, South Africa—When the International AIDS Conference is held in Africa, not only do you get Elton John, Queen Latifah and the rest of the celebrity set in attendance, but African royalty appear as well. They're concerned for their people—and it's these traditional leaders, as opposed to politicians, that often hold sway.
That's especially true in Malawi, where 10.3% of the population lives with HIV. Reflecting gender disparities in the country, more women (12.9 percent) than men (8.1 percent) have the disease, according to the UK-based organization, AVERTing HIV and AIDS. However, Malawi's rate of new infection has been dropping, and perhaps that's in part due to Senior Chief Theresa John Ndovie Kachindamoto. She's a small woman with a large presence. When we first met at the meeting, she was dressed in a gown sewn of patterned fabric and leopard print, wearing a ring of leopard fur around her head.
From a region of central Malawi called Dedza, Kachindamoto rules over 545 villages and governs 51 chiefs. As a powerful female ruler in a man's world, she's taken some bold steps to save young women from infection. What follows is an edited version of our dinner conversation.
How did you become senior chief?
In 1958, I was born into a royal family of 12. I was the youngest, and as a child my father sent me to boarding school. I was upset because I wanted to stay at home, but my father said that as the youngest, I would live the longest, and therefore I should be well educated so that I could obtain everything I needed in the future. So I went to school, got good grades, and eventually became a secretary in the city of Zomba.
When my father died, his oldest sons took power until they died as well. Then in 2001, the royal family came to Zomba and told me to return home and take the throne. By then I was married, and my husband did not want to leave the city. But my family said, when you married her, did you not realize she was of royal blood? He said yes, and they said, then you know you have no choice. So we went.
Malawi's then-president, Bakili Muluzi, came to install me to the throne in 2003. In the ceremony he thanked the royal family, and said he'd like to see more women in power.
What did you do first?
When I returned to the district, I was annoyed to see girls as young as 12 with babies—of course, they had dropped out of school. And that meant they would never have a job, and would always remain dependent on others. So the first thing I did was to call a meeting of the community, regional chiefs, religious leaders and government leaders. I said, let us agree on bylaws to prohibit child marriage. I knew it was happening because when families force their young daughters to get married they can get money or cows in return. And I knew that local chiefs and headmen looked the other way because they got something in the transaction as well. So to these chiefs I said, if a girl younger than 15 is married, charge the family 5-7 chickens—and if you don't, I'll dismiss you.
Soon after this announcement, I heard about child marriages in 4 villages, so I asked my councilors to bring these headmen to me, and I dismissed them all. Then the child marriages were broken up, and the children sent to school. All the chiefs and pastors were shocked. But I told people, times are changing: This worked in the old times but no longer.
Since then, we've broken up many child marriages. We do it with the help of "secret mothers" and "secret fathers"—wise people who the villagers trust. They go to the couples and say, our chief wants this girl to be educated. Because of this, 814 children from terminated marriages have returned to school since I've taken power. My family and I pay for some of their school-related fees with our small salaries. So do the president's wife and many others in the community.
How have you responded to HIV?
Soon after I took power, people from the hospital told me that many young people in my region had HIV/AIDS. So I made a bylaw that before marriage, both people must go for HIV testing and counseling. And I said that we must stop "hyenas." This is what we call men who have sex with women outside of marriage.
In general, my push to educate girls helps with HIV too. They learn about HIV in school, they go for HIV testing, and if they are in school they are not as likely to get pregnant. If I could, I'd make it illegal for women to be married before age 21, just to ensure that they will continue with their education and not just drop out and stay at home where they are dependent on what a man does—but I don't think that law will be accepted!
Are you a popular leader?
No. People were really upset with me when I made these rules. They said, why did the royal family choose this woman? But they can say whatever they want and it doesn't matter, because I have authority. Now many in the community realize I'm telling the truth, and they respect me. But still, many men don't like me. They say they hope I die, and I just reply, I will not die.