Malawi’s Sexual Cleansing: Families Hire “Hyena” to have Sex with Their Children

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Malawi: The church, government, health experts, and advocates are now trying to end a century-old tradition in Malawi. Many communities in the African country hire sex workers called “hyena” to take the virginity of young women as a form of “sexual cleansing.”

Sexual cleansing is a common tradition in some remote southern regions of Malawi. Parents force girls to have sex with a paid hyena once they reach puberty. The ritual is done after the first menstruation. A girl and her hyena would have sex over three days, which would mark the passage from childhood to womanhood.

Teenage girls have no rights to refuse the cleansing. Village elders believe a delayed cleansing would lead to disease or some fatal misfortune, which would affect the girl’s family or the whole village.
One working hyena is Eric Aniva. He’s from the Nsanje district in southern Malawi, where villages are widely practicing the tradition.

In an interview with media, Aniva said he had slept with “school-going girls,” aged 12 or 13. He claims all those teenage girls were “proud” he’s their hyena. “All these girls find pleasure in having me as their hyena,” he told Butler. “They actually are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.”Aniva, confused about his age but appears in his 40s, currently has two wives and five children. The hyena said his family is aware of his job and that he already slept with 104 women and teenage girls.

Aniva brags most women who hired him were happy and satisfied. However, several girls said they were only forced by their parents to undergo sexual cleansing. “There was nothing else I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents,” Maria, a girl who was cleansed, told Butler. “If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was scared.” Aside from Aniva, there are nine more hyenas in his community. Hyenas are paid from $4 to $7 per service.

Villagers also hire hyenas to cleanse a widow. Sexual cleansing is required before they bury the deceased husband. A woman who had an abortion must also sleep with a hyena for cleansing. Parents voluntarily arrange sexual cleansing for the girls in their family. Villagers believe the ritual is necessary “to avoid infection with their parents or the rest of the community.”

Hyenas are not allowed to use condoms. Some Malawians believe the good morals of hyenas are protecting them from HIV/Aids. However, estimates from the UN show one in 10 of all Malawians carry the virus. Hyenas were also found at highest risk of having HIV. In fact, Aniva admitted he is HIV-positive. He said all parents of girls who he had sex with had no idea about his condition

To date, Aniva wants to stop working as a hyena. He said him and his wives now want sexual cleansing to end as they’re afraid to see their daughters undergo the ritual. “Not my daughter. I cannot allow this,” Aniva said. “I am stopping. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.”

Many outsiders, including the church, NGOs and the government, also want to end sexual cleansing. A campaign has already been launched in Africa against “harmful cultural practices.” “We are not going to condemn these people,” said Dr May Shaba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Gender and Welfare. “But we are going to give them information that they need to change their rituals.”

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