women at Lake Malawi [iStock]While rituals like this one at Lake Malawi are innocent, the church has proposed alternative rituals to those involving pre-marital sex [iStock]


The ritual rape of girls as young as 12 as a rite of passage in southern Malawi, exposed by the BBC, has highlighted the country’s struggle to protect its children from widely observed traditions of sexual abuse. The World Service documentary revealed how men, known as afisi (hyenas), were paid by the children’s parents to ‘sexually cleanse’ girls as part of a transition to adulthood in southern Malawi’s Nsanje district. According to the custom of kuchotsa mafuta in Nsanje, girls are forced to have sex with the fisi for up to three days after they first menstruate.

The BBC reporter spoke to one ‘hyena’, Eric Aniva, who admitted he was HIV-positive—yet did not mention this to those who paid him. ‘Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls. 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,’ he claimed.

The desperately sad comments of girls who had suffered the ordeal told a different story—and emphasises the fear of supernatural repercussions if they had not acquiesced: ‘There was nothing else I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents. If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases—even death—so I was scared.’ Even Aniva’s wife protested at the practice, though it was the only source of income for them. ‘I want this tradition to end,’ she told the BBC. ‘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.’

Ten years ago, a report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), Cultural Practices and Human Rights, condemned the continued practice of traditions such as parents giving young girls in marriage to old men to pay off debts or in exchange for cattle (kupimbira), pre-arranged marriages (kutomera or chitomero), and the afisi among the Chewa and Yao ethnic groups in the central and southern areas respectively. Under another Yao custom, kusunga mwana, when a wife leaves home for a long period, elders choose a girl (usually the wife’s younger sister) to have sex with the man, while the practice of men being given a ‘bonus wife’ (mbirigha), also usually his wife’s younger sister, also persists.

Kuchotsa mafuta is justified as educating girls about their conjugal duties. Initiations for girls usually include some instruction in sex as well as adult codes of behaviour, all done far from home; the MHRC found girls as young as six were taken away for weeks at a time. Joyce Mkandawire, of the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) Malawi, a women’s rights organisation, told CNN in 2014: ‘There’s no benefit to the sex education. This is harmful to the girls. This is one of the factors fuelling child marriage in Malawi.’

While many ethnic groups in Malawi have initiation rites for adolescent girls (chinamwali), and to a lesser extent boys, not all force the girls into sex. But even where a consensual element is allowed to the girls, who are encouraged to find a boy or man for sex to clean away childhood ‘dust’, the deep-rooted resistance to condoms in sub-Saharan Africa means teenagers are simultaneously advised not to get pregnant by female elders and expected to lose their virginity without a condom to prove they are adults. Aniva told the BBC he had five children ‘he knows about—he’s not sure how many of the women and girls he’s made pregnant.’

Forced to Wed

Malawi has the 10th highest rate of child marriage in the world. Half of the girls in Malawi will be married by 18, with some as young as nine or 10 being forced to wed, Human Rights Watch reported in 2014. In what the UN called a ‘momentous step’, Malawi last year raised the minimum age for marriage to 18, Reuters reported. In 2013, Catherine Gotani Hara, then Malawi’s health minister, linked the issue to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, telling the World Health Organisation: ‘By ending early marriages we can avert up to 30% of maternal deaths and also reduce the neonatal mortality rate.’

But pregnancy for teenage girls is not even the worst outcome. As the Atlantic noted in 2014, ‘Young girls largely unaware of the risks are being told to have unprotected sex in a country where a tenth of the population is HIV-positive.’ The HIV epidemic has led to life expectancy in Malawi falling to a low of under 55 years, and Malawi’s National Aids Commission found HIV prevalence in Nsanje had risen from 21% in 1997 to 32.9% in 2003.

However, the ‘hyenas’ are only one aspect of the belief that females must be ‘sexually cleansed’. For example, with kulowa kufa (‘entering death’ in Chichewa, according to Dr Arne Steinforth in his treatise Troubled Minds), a widow is expected to have sex with her late husband’s brother before she can bury her dead husband. If her husband has died within six months of her giving birth she may have to have sex with a ‘hyena’ before becoming sexually active again. If the mother does not have sex then, it is believed her baby might get sick, develop mental disorders or die. Similarly, if a woman has an abortion, sexual ‘cleansing’ is required.

‘Hyenas’ are not necessarily men. In 2011, Nation on Sunday reported on the retirement of Emma Tembo, 35, who had been hired 82 times to have sex with widowed men. Her work as a ‘hyena’ had led to her contracting HIV. ‘I did not enjoy the sex I had with the 82 men because I was doing it as part of our culture and a source of livelihood,’ Tembo said.

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and such rituals. Alister Munthali and Eliya Zulu’s 2007 study on adolescent initiation rituals found: ‘Both boys and girls in the Southern region are more likely to have undergone such rites than boys and girls in the other two regions … ethnic differences closely mirror the regional differences in that the most dominant ethnic groups in the Southern Region (the Yao and the Lomwe) reported the highest attendance of initiation rites. The vast majority of Yao boys (73%) and girls (75%) reported that they participated in initiation rites.’ By contrast, the study found so few boys initiated among the Northern region’s dominant Tumbuka and Tonga ethnic groups that it declared the practice ‘quiet [sic] alien in the region’.

With the custom still shrouded in secrecy, one might have assumed the afisi were declining. However, the BBC report, which followed a local television station’s interview with Aniva, is only the latest exposé by foreign media. It was a humiliating setback for the Malawian government in its campaign against ‘harmful cultural practices’. Five days after the original report, the BBC reported that Aniva had been arrested on the orders of President Peter Mutharika and would be investigated for exposing the young girls to HIV.

Mutharika said: ‘These horrific practices, although done by a few, also tarnish the image of the whole nation of Malawi internationally and bring shame to us all.’ The Nyasa Times reported that nine other ‘hyenas’ in Nsanje had fled after Aniva’s arrest.

Custodians of Culture

However, some local voices argued that Aniva was being treated as a scapegoat for deep-rooted cultural practices. José Safarao argued in the Sunday Times that arresting Aniva was treating the symptoms, not the disease. ‘Aniva did not go looking for widows and adolescents to sleep with. They hired him,’ he said, claiming these ‘custodians of the culture’ would continue to secretly hire men like Aniva. ‘Deal with the culture. Aniva just happens to be a small actor in the scheme of things.’

Another Malawian commentator, Innocent Chitosi, editor of the Daily Times, said: ‘Malawians are reacting not because we are surprised and disgusted by Aniva’s conduct but because we are embarrassed that the world has now known what we have been doing in hiding.’

He took issue with the implication that the practice occurred only in the least developed areas of Malawi: ‘There is this strange tendency among most Malawians to portray people of Nsanje as backward.’ Contrary to the BBC’s assertion that it lingered in ‘remote parts of southern Malawi’, however, he noted that Nsanje scored quite highly in development terms. ‘Literacy levels for Nsanje have always been high. For instance, a 1998 Malawi population census revealed that literacy levels in Nsanje were at 51.7%.’

Nor are such customs necessarily a lingering reminder of traditional African religion, sustained in opposition to missionary Christianity. ‘Nsanje people are not even religiously ignorant,’ said Chitosi. ‘The 1998 survey indicated 73.9% of people in Nsanje were Christians.’ This suggests the churches’ efforts to propose a rival initiation—with the emphasis on no pre-marital sex—has had limited success.

Aniva’s wife, Fanny, was understandably aggrieved about her husband becoming the personification of Malawi’s most regressive practices. She said he had stopped conducting ‘sexual cleansing’ a long time ago, Malawi News Now reported. ‘How can they arrest him for an old story?’ she asked. Traditional leaders have also called for Aniva’s release. ‘The case is being blown out of proportion,’ said Foster Tchale, spokesman for Nsanje’s Chief Malemia. ‘Some forces have declared total war on the culture of the Shire Valley.’

‘Our Own Creation’

Many Malawians had more nuanced reactions. One wrote in the Nyasa Times: ‘The clergy are quick to condemn gays [as ‘alien’] but so far I am yet to hear any man of God condemning hyenas raising havoc in Nsanje. Is this evil cultural practice imported? No, it is our own creation.’ Another wrote of the country’s brief spell in the global news spotlight: ‘Malawi has been virally shamed internationally.’

Certainly, while Malawi is far from the only country in Africa to practice ‘sexual cleansing’ of widows, and chokolo (wife inheritance) was mandated in Genesis and Deuteronomy as levirate marriage, one wonders how many other countries maintain such an extraordinary spectrum of sexually abusive practices of girls and women.

The question to be considered by the Malawian government, and those international bodies aiding the country’s development, is why these customs are so deeply entrenched. As Muthuli and Zulu point out: ‘Those who attend the rites feel elevated from the ones who have not, and are actually encouraged to avoid associating with non-initiates because they are now adults.’

The MHRC recognises that such abusive practices have a meaning for those who follow them that cannot be easily dismissed. ‘People without a culture are like a tree without roots,’ it declared, but acknowledged ‘some elements of culture can be obstacles to development’.

A concerted drive to end such customs must acknowledge that such pernicious customs as afisi persist because of the powerful forces in rural communities that continue to see benefits in subjecting their daughters to such abuse. Similarly, it is a given among international bodies and development aid agencies that eradicating child marriage is a prerequisite for improving girls’ education, by improving Malawi’s dire high school drop-out rates, and female health, by reducing gynaecological problems such as fistulas. But respondents in the MHRC study put forward several reasons for tolerating such apparently retrograde customs, including a belief that it helps boys avoid promiscuity (though it is not unheard of for girls as young as 12, and even some who are prepubescent, to marry), a desire for grandchildren, kutomera (pre-arranged marriages) and peer pressure, which can see women called mahure (whores) if they are still unmarried in their 20s.

For all the international outrage, domestic disquiet and government crackdown, such practices will not be eradicated by simply prosecuting one ‘hyena’ any more than pursuing the women who inflict female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls will end that horrific practice.

In Kenya, where Unicef hailed the FGM rate falling by nearly three-quarters over 30 years, the Irin news agency reported that success had come from targeting the anti-FGM campaign at elders—‘the gate-keepers of culture, if they order that a certain traditional practice should be abandoned, [the community follows]’—and the young men who will marry the uncut girls.

An example of this working in Malawi came in 2013, when Voice of America examined a southern district, Chiradzulu, with one of the country’s highest rates of child marriage. GENET encouraged traditional authorities, such as chiefs and village headmen, to ban child marriage—six months later there had been no cases. Such initiatives helped push the government to make child marriage illegal in 2015, the Guardian reported. Similarly, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that the charity Plan International had been working in Malawi with alangizi (older women who oversee chinamwali in eastern regions) to preserve traditions while keeping young girls safe. Under this initiative, the girls get the advice but without the sexual initiation.

As with FGM, it is the elders and many thousands of parents who force their daughters to undergo ritual sexual abuse, believing it to be in their child’s interests, who must be convinced to abandon the old ways. The Commonwealth is well placed to take a lead in ending this scourge.

‘Violence and abuse robs children of the ability to develop and grow into their full potential and so it is literally stealing all our futures,’ Patricia Scotland declared in her first speech as Commonwealth secretary-general, as she pledged to tackle violence against girls and women. She returned to the theme at September’s Women’s Affairs ministerial meeting in Apia, Samoa. ‘We must make the connections, economic and social, social and environmental, that will ensure truly lasting development, with no one left behind,’ Radio New Zealand reported. ‘Alone we are invisible, together we are invincible.’