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Hyena Man Trial Exposes ‘Sexual Cleansing’ Rituals in Rural Malawi

The conviction of a Malawian man who slept with underage girls as part of “sexual cleansing” rituals signals that the custom may not be tolerated. But his two-year sentence has activists questioning how strong the justice system’s resolve is for ending the practice.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Malawi court children aids
Self-confessed "hyena man" Eric Aniva was arrested after he revealed that families paid him to have sexual intercourse with their daughters, a traditional custom in parts of rural Malawi meant to prepare girls to become good wives. (AFP/Eldson Chagara)

When Eric Aniva, an HIV-positive, self-professed “hyena man” who had sex with over 100 women and girls in Malawi as part of a “sexual cleansing” ritual, was sentenced to two years in prison in November 2016, women’s rights campaigners were conflicted. On the one hand, they said, Aniva’s conviction sent the message that the practice of “sexual cleansing,” which Malawi banned in 2012 under its Gender Equality Act, would not be tolerated by the courts. But on the other hand, they argue, his two-year sentence is not enough to deter other hyena men from accepting payment to have unprotected sex with women and girls – some as young as 10.

Aniva first gained international attention in July 2016 when he revealed in an interview with the BBC that families in the Nsanje district were paying him between $4 and $7 to have sex with girls after their first menstruation. Aniva told the interviewer that he was HIV-positive and had not disclosed that information to the families who hired him. After the interview aired, President Peter Mutharika ordered Aniva’s arrest and prosecution, issuing a statement saying that “these practices … go against the vision of development that seeks to ensure that the youth [in particular young girls] are able to achieve their full potential.”

In parts of Malawi, “sexual cleansing” is performed on girls when they reach puberty and also when a woman is widowed, has a miscarriage or terminates a pregnancy. In most cases, the act is arranged by the family of the girl or woman involved, and she has little say in the matter. Cultural beliefs hold that if she refuses, she will bring bad luck to her entire family. No protection is used during the ritual, so it spreads HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Mutharika had originally called for Aniva to be charged with defiling young girls, but due to a lack of witnesses, he was instead given the lesser charge of “harmful cultural practice” for having sex with newly widowed women.

According to Girls Empowerment Network (GENET), an NGO working in southern Malawi where “sexual cleansing” is practiced by rural communities, the act of having sex with a “hyena man” is part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood and usually occurs at camps where young girls are sent to be taught about intercourse. Most of the information focuses on how to sexually please a man, with no information on contraception or the dangers of engaging in sexual activity at an early age, says GENET spokeswoman Tamara Mhango.

Mhango says that towards the end of the initiation camps, girls are exposed to the practice of kusasa fumbi, where they are forced to have sex with a man in order to be “cleansed of childhood dirt.”

“Once you have completed initiation, you are certified to be a woman and you are no longer a child,” says Mhango. “Such practices are not only harmful, but rob girls of their childhood and life. Most girls who undergo such practices usually marry early or become pregnant.”

A 2012 study by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that in southern Malawi, 57 percent of girls aged 12-19 have undergone initiation rituals (higher than the national figure of 43 percent), some of which included “sexual cleansing.” The researchers found the practice was most popular among the Yao and Lomwe tribes, the dominant ethnicities in the region, with up to 75 percent of girls having participated in “sexual cleansing” ceremonies.

When girls leave these initiation camps, “they are encouraged to try out what they have been taught, and this in turn encourages early sexual activity,” says Mhango. “It is therefore not surprising that Malawi has the worst statistics on child marriage in the sub-Saharan region, with nearly 50 percent of girls marrying before reaching the age of 18.”

Rights campaigners say the practice of “sexual cleansing” goes against Malawi’s Gender Equality Act, which prohibits “committing, engaging in or subjecting another person to a harmful cultural practice.” The maximum sentence for anyone convicted of the offense is a fine of 1 million kwacha ($1,370) and five years in jail.

Emma Kaliya, spokeswoman for the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre, says she was surprised by the short sentence handed down to Aniva and doesn’t think it will be much of a deterrent. “On the positive side, the message sent was that if people continue to do this kind of thing, the law will catch up with them,” she says. “However, on the negative side, one may think, ‘I can continue to do it – even if they arrest me, I will only go away for two years.’” Various human rights groups, including the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre, have called for a review of Aniva’s sentencing.

But Kaliya, like other rights advocates, says it’s rural communities themselves who need to take up the responsibility of ending the practice. “The people in the community were accomplices to Aniva. In my opinion, they should have been arrested and tried alongside him, because they knew what was happening,” she says. “They watched and encouraged it, but nothing happened to them. Even the mothers and fathers of Aniva’s victims were not held accountable.”

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