She calls the initiative Project Dignity

The BBC returns to the subject of Malawian “hyenas” – men who are paid to “initiate” young girls into sex.

In July the BBC wrote about a Malawian man paid to have sex with young girls from his village, as part of a sexual initiation ritual. Later a Malawian woman, Natasha Annie Tonthola, contacted the BBC to explain how her experience of the ritual helped inspire her to campaign for the protection of women and girls. This is her story.

I’m the oldest of five children and I grew up in a village in the central district of Malawi, near the capital, Lilongwe, and I was 13 years old when the initiation ceremony happened.

My father was from a village near Mulanje, in the south of the country, and I was sent there for the ceremony after my first period. You don’t have a choice – it happens to every girl in the village.

They were told they would learn about womanhood. She was excited about it. No one told them it involved sex. They were told a man called a “hyena” was coming to visit them, but not that he would be putting his penis in them.

We each had a piece of cloth and we were told to put it on the floor. We were told that it was time to show that we knew how to treat a man, that we knew what to do for our future husbands. Then we were blindfolded.

You’re not supposed to show you’re scared, you’re not supposed to show you don’t know what’s happening to you.

The man comes, and he tells you to lie down, you open your legs and he does what he does. We weren’t allowed to know who the man was – only the elders know.

That’s an interesting touch. I guess it’s to teach them that it doesn’t matter who he is? Because they don’t get to choose who he is at any time? They just have to take it?

We were young girls, so we were tense, and this man would push our legs open. I found it painful. When he finished, I was relieved. The female elder came in and said, “Congratulations, you have finished the initiation ceremony, and you are a woman now.”

Many girls think this is normal because we are in a way brainwashed, we think it is OK because it is tradition.

But the hyena didn’t wear a condom, and some of the girls got pregnant. If the hyena has an STD, well…

Tonthola had a rough life and an abusive marriage, and she became an organizer.

My community organisation continued to educate people but it was hard, particularly when we were challenging traditions such as the use of hyenas and wife inheritance.

In some communities they told us: “Just because you are educated, doesn’t mean that you should tell us what to do. These traditions and customs have existed for time immemorial, and we’ve practised them for ages without any harm.”

But some elders and religious leaders listened, and some have stopped the practice in their villages.

In my community work I soon learned more about the barriers for girls in school. If families are going through a financial rough patch, they’re more likely to pay fees for boys rather than for girls. If girls drop out of school, the family is eager to marry them off rather than have them sit around the house all day. And many girls miss class because they can’t afford sanitary towels.

To try to solve this problem, one of the main things my organisation is doing is distributing eco-friendly reusable washable sanitary pads and pants. They come as part of a kit including pants with clips so that they stay in place and a waterproof bag, in case girls need to change them in school. They are biodegradable, but cost effective and durable – they last for five years. I’ve also expanded into nappies. I hope these will encourage much less waste to go into landfill.

In 2011 I realised I needed to establish a formal organisation, and that was the start of Mama Africa Foundation Trust. We have distributed so many sanitary towels that I have lost count. I call this initiative Project Dignity.

The female body is a handicap in so many ways. Natasha Annie Tonthola is a hero.

H/t Seth

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