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Arrest of Malawi's 'Hyena' Man Highlights Clash of Ritual, Health and Women's Rights

Friends in Malawi gather to listen to a segment of Reality Radio, a program with stories and interviews about girls' risks of HIV/AIDS. (Hilary Schwandt)
Friends in Malawi gather to listen to a segment of Reality Radio, a program with stories and interviews about girls' risks of HIV/AIDS. (Hilary Schwandt)

Malawi police have arrested a man who practices the custom of deflowering young girls who have reached puberty. It is a ritual observed in some remote southern regions of the country as a form of "cleansing." But there is concern the paid sex worker, referred to as a "hyena," may have infected girls with the virus that causes AIDS.

There are many like him in his remote village in Nsanje district in southern Malawi, but Eric Aniva is considered the best.

He is a "hyena," the traditional title given to a man paid by families to have sex with underaged girls to mark their passage from puberty to adulthood. He says he receives a fee of between four and seven dollars to "sexually cleanse" each girl.

Aniva says he has deflowered more than 100 young girls, some as young as 12 years old, during an initiation ceremony known as “Kusasa Fumbi” or “Removing Dust.” But he also admits that he is HIV-positive, a fact, he says, he has never revealed to the families that hire him, and that he does not use any protection when conducting the ritual.

The disclosure to news media prompted Malawi President Peter Mutharika to order his arrest and an investigation into others involved in the ritual. Aniva faces charges of defiling children and exposing them to HIV.

“We do not have a problem with a cultural practice, which is very good to the people, but the harmful culture we have a problem with it and we are banning it," said government spokesperson, Patricia Kaliati. "That is why we have no option but to arrest this person who does not respect the rights of children but also affecting them with deadly HIV-AIDS which he has proudly announced that he is positive.”

But Aniva's arrest on Tuesday has sparked heated debate among Malawians including lawyers, AIDS activists and traditional leaders.

HIV-AIDS activist David Odali told VOA ordering arrests or banning cultural practices that have existed for a long time will not help matters. He says the best option would be to modernize cultural practices that are perceived harmful to people.

“If someone wants to play the role of Fisi [Hyena]; if someone wants to do widow cleansing; if someone wants to do widow inheritance, then that person should first of all go for HIV testing, Odali said.”

The practice is centuries old. Parents send their young daughters to so-called "initiation camps," where they learn how to be good wives and please a man sexually. The "sexual cleansing" ritual is the last stage of the "initiation." Hyenas are also called upon to "cleanse" women who are widowed or who have had an abortion.

Traditional Authority Theresa Kachindamoto is local traditional leader who fights for the welfare and rights of young girls. She told VOA the practice traumatizes the girls.

She says first, their rights have been violated. These girls will not be happy all their lives, which is killing. ... There is no need for chiefs to tolerate cultural practices that are harmful, she says.

Constitutional lawyer Edge Kanyongolo says Mutharika's arrest order is wrong. He says the Malawi Constitution and Police Act do not give the president powers to interfere with the operation of independent agencies like the police.

Last year, Malawi banned child marriages and raised the legal age to marry from 15 to 18.

Police says Aniva is expected to appear before the court soon, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.