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Women's Rights Activists Urge Review of Sentence for Malawi 'Hyena'

Eric Aniva leaves court in Nsanje, Malawi, after a magistrate announced it was proven beyond reasonable doubt that Aniva had engaged in harmful and illegal traditional sex practices.

Women’s rights campaigners say an HIV-infected Malawi man who had unprotected sex with girls as part of a traditional custom received a sentence that was too lenient, and they are calling on the High Court to review the lower- court decision.

Eric Aniva is known in his community as a "hyena," the traditional title given to a man paid by widows to "sexually cleanse" them after the deaths of their husbands and by families to have sex with underage girls to mark their passage to adulthood. He has said he received a fee of between 4 and 7 dollars to perform the ritual.

At the time of his arrest, Aniva admitted to having deflowered more than 100 young girls, some as young as 12, during an initiation ceremony known as “Kusasa Fumbi” or “Removing Dust.” He also admitted that he was HIV-positive, a fact, he said, he never revealed to the families that hired him, and that he does not use any protection when conducting the ritual.

No woman testified in court to having slept with Aniva. Thus, the lower court sentenced him to two years in prison for engaging in "harmful cultural practices" under Malawi’s 2013 Gender Equality Act, which carries a maximum of five years in prison for violations of the law.

In a joint statement, the Malawi Human Rights Resource Center and several women's rights groups expressed shock at the lower-court ruling. Emma Kaliya, the executive director of the Malawi Human Rights Resource Center, told VOA that despite many mitigating factors, the lower court could have imposed a harsher penalty.

“It [the sentence] is also sending a wrong signal that you can do that [sexually violate women] and you can get any sentence even lesser than two years," said Kaliya. "We cannot continue violating women just like that.”

Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is a strong advocate of girls’ rights in central Malawi. She also told VOA the lower court could have considered the plight of the violated girls before handing down the sentence.

“This is not good to our girls," said Kachindamoto. If they were infected with the virus that causes AIDS, "then their whole life will be in misery. We must first think for the future of these girls, not for the culture. That cultural practice must be abolished.”

Principal Magistrate Innocent Nebi told the court Tuesday that the sentence was largely based on Aniva's telling police that he'd slept with over 100 women while he knew that he was HIV-positive.

Last year, Malawi banned child marriage, raising the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 in an effort to end early sexual initiations.

Aniva's lawyer, Michael Goba Chipeta, said he would appeal both the conviction and sentence.

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