An “interesting” custom in Malawi:
In some remote southern regions of Malawi, it’s traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a paid sex worker known as a “hyena” once they reach puberty. The act is not seen by village elders as rape, but as a form of ritual “cleansing”. However, as Ed Butler reports, it has the potential to be the opposite of cleansing – a way of spreading disease.
Well, you know, how it’s seen by “the village elders” isn’t really the issue, since it’s not the village elders who are being fucked against their will. Note that the girls are made to “have sex with” this guy – in other words they’re raped. The fact that it’s potentially unhealthy isn’t the only problem.
Aniva is by all accounts the pre-eminent “hyena” in this village. It’s a traditional title given to a man hired by communities in several remote parts of southern Malawi to provide what’s called sexual “cleansing”. If a man dies, for example, his wife is required by tradition to sleep with Aniva before she can bury him. If a woman has an abortion, again sexual cleansing is required.
Required, required, required – the women are required to be raped for various stupid reasons. “Cleansing”=punishing a woman, just to be on the safe side.
And most shockingly, here in Nsanje, teenage girls, after their first menstruation, are made to have sex over a three-day period, to mark their passage from childhood to womanhood. If the girls refuse, it’s believed, disease or some fatal misfortune could befall their families or the village as a whole.
They’re raped over a three day period. They’re not “made to have sex” because being raped isn’t having sex. The rapist is having sex, but the rape victim isn’t.
“Some girls are just 12 or 13 years old, but I prefer them older. All these girls find pleasure in having me as their hyena. They actually are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.”
Despite his boasts, several girls I meet in a nearby village express aversion to the ordeal they’ve had to go through.
“There was nothing else I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents,” one girl, Maria, tells me. “If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was scared.”
They tell me that all their female friends were made to have sex with a hyena.
Just to make sure, condoms are not permitted.
It’s clear, given the hyena’s duties, that HIV is a huge risk to the community. The UN estimates that one in 10 of all Malawians carry the virus, so I ask Aniva if he is HIV-positive. He astounds me by saying that he is – and that he doesn’t mention this to a girl’s parents when they hire him.
Parents who have had more education than others may already choose not to hire a hyena, I am told. But the female elders I spoke to remain defiant.
“There’s nothing wrong with our culture,” Chrissie tells me. “If you look at today’s society, you can see that girls are not responsible, so we have to train our girls in a good manner in the village, so that they don’t go astray, are good wives so that the husband is satisfied, and so that nothing bad happens to their families.”
Definitely. You have to have the girls thoroughly raped (and infected with HIV) so that the husband is happy.
In Malawi’s central Dedza district, hyenas are only ever used to initiate widows or infertile women, but the Paramount Chief Theresa Kachindamoto – a rare female figurehead in Malawi – has made the fight against the tradition a personal priority.
She is trying to galvanise other regional chiefs to make similar efforts. In some other districts, like Mangochi in the east of the country, ceremonies are being adapted to replace sex with a more benign anointing of the girl.
But not in Nsanje.
In a remote village, I meet one of Aniva’s two wives, Fanny, along with his youngest baby daughter. Fanny was herself widowed before being “cleansed” by Aniva with sex. They married soon after.
Their relationship looks strained. Sitting next to him, she admits shyly that she hates what he does, but that it brings necessary income. I ask her if she expects her two-year-old to be undergoing initiation too in perhaps 10 years from now.
“I don’t want that to happen,” she says. “I want this tradition to end. We are forced to sleep with the hyenas. It’s not out of our choice and that I think is so sad for us as women.”
“You hated it when it happened to you?” I ask.
“I still hate it right up until now.”
Then Aniva says he doesn’t want it for his daughter either.