• Eric Aniva opened the door to a dark world whose existence was justified by culture. He confessed to being a “hyena”, paid to have sex with young girls in remote Southern Malawi. That he and many other hyenas slept with the girls was already repugnant, but the fact that the girls’ families were in on the deal and even paid for it made the practice even more disgusting. His confession earned him a one way ticket to jail as the President of Malawi, Peter Mutharika ordered his arrest and an investigation into others involved in the practice. The President said, “At a time when we as a country are making notable strides toward emancipation of the girl child, it is disheartening that within our borders are men, women and whole communities who deliberately choose to abuse our girls in the name of culture. To those who continue to or might harbour thoughts to practice cultural practices that disorient our girl child, I have a message for you: ‘Stop now or you will be on the sorry side of the law’.”

    Who are the hyenas?

    In 2015, Malawi raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, earning much deserved praise from the world. The age of consent for sex in the country is 16. However, in a move that frustrates the country’s praise-worthy efforts, men called “hyenas” are still sleeping with children in Southern Malawi. Eric Aniva is one such man and his story was documented by BBC News. The title of “hyena” is no insult. It is one given to a man communities hire to “sexually cleanse” widows, married women who cannot fall pregnant and young girls after their first menstruation. If a man dies, his wife has to sleep with people like Aniva before he can be buried. Ed Butler, who interviewed Aniva said the practice of sleeping with young girls marks their transition from childhood and, “If the girls refuse, it’s believed, disease or some fatal misfortune could befall their families or the village as a whole.”

    For his part, Aniva has slept with at least 104 people and he confirmed he mainly slept with young school-going girls. He said, “Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls. 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.”

    In his community, there are 10 hyenas who are paid from $4 to $7 each time they “cleanse” someone. They are being paid to have sex with minors below the age of consent and that puts them in the league of rapists.

    An outdated cultural practice?

    Joyce Mkandawire, an advocate with Girls Empowerment Network Malawi is on record saying, “Not only that, the hyena doesn’t wear protection, which is why I know girls who contracted HIV because of hyenas.”

    She is right. Custodians of the initiation traditions in Nsanje district where Eric Aniva comes from however argued that hyenas were picked for their good morals, and therefore could not be infected with HIV/AIDS. However, Eric Aniva admitted to being HIV positive, information he does not divulge when he is being hired. This means he has infected quite a number of girls. Of what benefit is this cultural practice that on a balancing scale it outweighs the health of these young girls? Is this practice not the expression of a patriarchal bias in some traditions? There is need for the communities practising it to sit and consider the harm it has inflicted on young girls who are not given even a chance to choose what they want to make of their sexuality and adulthood. What makes this particular situation difficult is how the molestation of girl children has become an industry which probably sustains the families of the hyenas. This means there will be inertia: unwillingness to move away from the practice since it has been feeding families.

    It is not a surprise then that Ed Butler was told, “There’s nothing wrong with our culture” by one Chrissie, a custodian of the initiation tradition. One Father Clause Boucher, a Catholic priest in Malawi also confirms that efforts to stop the sexualisation of children have been resisted in the remote southern regions of the country. It is now a monetised industry of sexual exploitation and it will be hard to dismantle as so many stockholders are getting dividends from it. However, kudos to President Mutharika for his swift action against the hyenas’ exploitative ways. If dialogue will not work, why not use the stick? This is a matter of life and death.

    Image credit: BBC