Eric Aniva, a Malawian in his forties, is what’s known as a ‘hyena’ – a man paid to have sex with young girls as a form of ritual cleansing.
Sexual cleansing involving ‘hyenas’ is common practice in southern Malawi- and women are required to participate in it at various points in their life, including if their husband has died or if they have an abortion. Shockingly, young girls are sent to ‘initiation camps’ by their families before puberty, where they are taught how to have sex. Then, they are forced to have sex over three days after their first period to “to avoid infection with their parents or the rest of the community”. And there is no thought given to health concerns – as tradition dictates that condoms are prohibited, and it’s believed that the ‘hyenas’ are disease-free due to their good morals.
As a result, the practice puts young girls at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, which is carried by one in 10 people in Malawi. In an interview with the BBC, Eric, from Nsanje, a district in southern Malawi, explained that he has slept with over 100 girls and women after becoming a ‘hyena in 1995’ – and has five children that he knows about. He said: “Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls. jailed “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.” Appallingly, even though he claims he carries out fewer cleansing rituals than in the past, Eric admits he is HIV-positive – but he keeps that to himself when families approach him for his services. And although government officials are against the practice, there is no official policy to protect young girls in the region. Dr May Shaba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Gender and Welfare, explained: “We are not going to condemn these people. But we are going to give them information that they need to change their rituals.”
Meanwhile, Chrissie, a community elder who arranges the initiation camps, told the BBC: “There’s nothing wrong with our culture. “If you look at today’s society, you can see that girls are not responsible, so we have to train our girls in a good manner in the village, so that they don’t go astray, are good wives so that the husband is satisfied, and so that nothing bad happens to their families.”
However, not all women feel the same. Fanny, one of Eric’s two wives, explained that she hates the practice, and she is scared her two-year-old daughter will have to endure it in 10 years’ time.
She told the BBC: “I don’t want that to happen. 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.”