Warning: The following article is shocking and disturbing. Some readers may be offended by its content which includes frank discussion of a shocking rite of passage practiced in Malawi – the initiation of young Malawian girls into womanhood through “sex camps” and “sexual cleansing”.
Malawi, located in southeast Africa, is one of the most underdeveloped countries on the planet. Guided by high rates of infant mortality and HIV/Aids, the area has one of the lowest rates of life expectancy on earth. Adding to their economic and health problems is a shocking societal problem – a bizarre rite of passage for girls as young as 6-years-old that is conducted in order to initiate them into womanhood. It’s called kusasa fumbi or “sexual cleansing” and requires a hired-man, called a “hyena”, have sex with the young female.
Malawi’s bizarre “sexual cleansing” practice
In Malawian, sexual cleansing is conducted for various reasons. When a husband dies, the widow is required to undertake sexual cleansing (have sex with a hyena) before she can remarry. The practice is also used to treat infertility and after a woman has an abortion. For girls as young as 6 years old, the rite marks the girl’s passage from childhood to adulthood.
Young Malawian girls are taught at an early age that they must have sex in order to “get rid of child dust”. They are lead to believe that if they ignore “sexual cleansing”, they will become diseased or suffer other forms of great misfortune. The fear instilled in the children runs deep. After completing her sexual cleansing, one young Malawian explained,
“There is nothing I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents. If I had refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was afraid.”
The sexual cleansing process
Prior to sexual cleansing, Malawi girls are taught “how to please a man”. The lessons begin with an elder woman lying on top of the child in order to demonstrate the process. They warn the child that she must get rid of her sexual inexperience immediately after her first menstruation. One young Malawian, who was 10 years old at the time, recalls her first demonstration and being told:
“You should be dancing and have a man on top of you, making him happy.”
Malawian sex camps
Once the young girl understands how to have sex, the girl’s family sends them to “initiation ceremonies” or sex camps. Reports from the Human Rights Commission reveal that girls as young as six years old are sent to the Malawian sex camps.
At the camps (poorer residents complete this part of the ritual at home), girls are “initiated” by a hired man called a “Hyena” or “fisi”. The hyena is hired to finish the rite – to have sex with the young girl. According to one girl, the hyena rationalizes the event to ease the child’s fear:
“They say they want to see whether the girls have really grown up.”
The ritual lasts for three days.
Given that 35% of all pregnancies in Malawi come from teenage mothers and that over 1 in 10 girls have HIV/AIDS, it will come as no surprise that as part of their cultural practice, the Hyena is forbidden to wear a condom during the initiation.
A hyena reveals details about his profession
Eric Aniva, a for-hire hyena, told the BBC that he is paid between $4 and $7 per encounter. He explained that even though the age of sexual consent in Malawi is 16 years old, it is at the discretion of the parents as to what age the girl should be cleansed. Most of his clients are 12 years old but some are younger.
Aniva does not know how many girls he has initiated but believes it’s in the hundreds. He is one of ten hyenas in his community and says that every village in his district has them. He boasted:
“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.”
Aniva also revealed to BBC that he is HIV-positive and since, for cultural reasons, hyenas don’t use protection during the sexual cleansing, it is presumed that a large number of girls that he “initiates” contract HIV as well.
The problem today
In a country where more than half the girls are married before the age of 18, the practice is still widely condoned. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
“They have no choice. They are forced by their parents and guardians to go through those things. If anyone refuses, they would definitely be looked at as an outcast. There is a lot of peer pressure.”
Despite outrage from Western countries, Malawians defend their cultural rites with a passion. One woman told 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.”