By Joanna Abaraoha
Imagine being a 12 or 13 year old girl who just started menstruating. Your family congratulates you on entering into womanhood and tells you that it is now time for you to learn how to be a good wife. A few days later you are sent to a man, a “hyena” whose job it is to sexually initiate you; your first sexual encounter is to be ceremonial, without your own consent and unprotected.
While many of us, myself included would see this act as statutory rape, it is the tradition in some southern areas of Malawi that girls have sex with paid sex workers called “hyena” once they reach puberty. The term “paid sex worker” should not be misunderstood, in many cases these men are proud of what they do and believe that they are doing a great thing for these girls and the community.
One of these “hyena” is a man named Eric Aniva who was featured in a broadcast on BBC World Service called “Stealing Innocence in Malawi”. This man, who is much older than the girls is paid to have sex with is proud of the work that he does and says that the girls “are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.” Eric Aniva resides in the Nsanje district of Southern Malawi. In this area, young girls are required to have sex over a three day period to mark their passage from childhood into womanhood after their first menstruation.
Aniva’s job description entails more than just having sex with underage girls as sexual cleansing is something that a woman must go through at various stages in her life such as after an abortion or when her husband dies. Many of the girls who are forced through this rite of passage do not agree with the practice but are told that if they refuse their family members will be catch diseases or even die.
Adolescent girls are also organized into camps each year where older women teach how to perform their duty as wives and how to please a man sexually. Normally “sexual cleansing” must be done after girls are made to have sex with a Hyena like Eric Aniva or one of the other hyenas in the community; every village in Nsanje district has a hyena.
Sexual cleansing is a horrific practice and act of violence performed on the girls of Southern Malawi but there are things that must be remembered before we can properly and humbly speak out against a practice that is cultural and seen as beneficial.
- This is not a practice that is widespread through Malawi as the cultures are very diverse throughout the country. Sexual cleansing may be a practice that happens in other communities through Malawi and other countries in Africa such as regions in Kenya, but the practice will not be identical in each place. In most of the country especially in areas close to the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe, “sexual cleansing” is rarely practiced.
- Thanks of the efforts of Paramount Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, who has made the fighting against this tradition a priority other regional chiefs are making efforts to stop the practice or replace it with a more benign process than sex especially in eastern districts like Mangochi.
- This is not a practice that is accepted by the government of Malawi. A lot is being done in Malawi to help improve the lives of young girls. Malawi is currently ranked 10th in the world for childhood marriage with 50% of girls being wed before the age of 18. In 2015 Malawi passed a law banning child marriage and raising the minimum age for marriage to 18. Not only that but when the BBC released their broadcast featuring Eric Aniva who revealed that he was HIV positive and did not disclose this to the families that hired him, he was arrested on orders of the Malawian president Peter Mutharika and could possibly be charged with defiling children and exposing them to HIV.
- This is a cultural practice which is not done with the intention to harm girls or women. As such it must be dealt with delicately and fought by educating local leaders as to the real effects of this dangerous practice rather than villainizing and demonizing the culture as is sometimes the practice of the West.
For every stride that is made in the fight for the human rights of women and girls there is so much more that must be done. This is not said to be discouraging but to say that we still have a lot to do and there is a need for people who will dedicate their lives and use their position to fight for the cause just like Paramount Chief Theresa Kachindamoto.