Some regions of Malawi have a pretty shocking tradition. Once girls reach puberty they are made to have sex with a paid sex worker known as a “hyena.”
The communities don’t see this as rape, but as a form of ritual “cleansing.” The upsetting reality is that it often has the opposite effect and spreads serious disease.
The BBC spoke to a “hyena”, Eric Aniva, one of the most prominent sexual cleansers in his village in the Nsanje district. It’s his job to ‘cleanse’ women sexually – if a man dies, for example, his wife is required by tradition to sleep with Aniva before she can bury him.
Similarly, if a woman has an abortion, sexual cleansing is required. Teenage girls – following their first menstruation – are made to have sex with a “hyena” over a three-day period. It marks their passage from childhood to womanhood. It is believed that disease or some fatal misfortune could befall their families or the village as a whole if the girls do not partake in the ritual.
“Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls,” Aniva tells theBBC.
“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 Aniva’s casual nature and boasts, it seems young girls asked about it don’t have the same memories of the experience.
His own wife Fanny said:
“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. I still hate it right up until now. “
He claims to have slept with 1o4 women, but after some research it’s clear he quoted the same number to a newspaper in 2012 – so it seems more likely that he lost count some time ago.
To top it all off, families pay him for his services – somewhere between $4 to $7 (£3 to £5) each time.
He admits he is HIV positive, and that he still continues to ‘sexually cleanse’ women despite custom banning the use of protection. These sexual cleansers are traditionally hand-picked by members of the community for their high morals.
It doesn’t help, then, that Eric admitted that he neglects to tell parents of his HIV-positive status when they hire him. Eric has two wives and several children, and when asked if his youngest would undergo sexual cleansing he was vehemently against it, saying:
“Not my daughter. I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.”
He was reminded that he still partakes in the practice, to which he responded:
“No, as I said, I’m stopping now.”