In some of the rural districts in Southern Malawi, including areas where MASYAP works, ‘Hyena’ men are paid to have sex with girls as young as 12. This is a cultural ritual of ‘sexual cleansing’ that occurs when a girl first begins menstruation, and is considered a key part in her transformation into a woman. Sexual cleansing is also common after an abortion or the death of a husband.

Families will engage and pay hyenas to sleep with young girls and women. The young girls themselves have little say in the proceedings, and will continue to have low levels of sexual autonomy over their lives –  MASYAP members often tell us that the man will decide when they have intercourse, and that he will also be the one who chooses whether or not to use any sort of protection.

A short while ago, a hyena from the Nsanje district, Eric Aniva, openly spoke to the press about his role. He revealed that he was HIV+ and had had intercourse with hundreds of girls without using barrier protection or disclosing his status. His actions therefore put these girls at risk of contracting the infection unknowingly, which would have undoubtedly led to delays in diagnosis and seeking treatment, as well as the risk of continued transmission.

Aniva has since been arrested, indicating that the wider community condemns the practice. In the last year, there have been other positive moves to safeguard young girls in Malawi, including the introduction in February 2015 of a law banning child marriages, setting the legal age of marriage to 18.

MASYAP’s concern is that if one hyena felt comfortable speaking openly, the problem is likely to be far more widespread in Southern Malawi that we had previously thought. Aniva’s comments show that there is still a lot of support for the practices in rural areas, where sexual cleansing is not only accepted but often required before the girl can be considered fit for marriage. We have no data on the number of hyenas currently operating in the region, but it is certain that many more will be operating without our notice.

The arrest of Aniva signals the tough stance that Malawi is taking on the issue. However, the practice is a culturally entrenched, and will need more than just legal barriers to prevent it continuing. Education and outreach to these communities will be key to change. From 2017, MASYAP is committed to increasing its focus in rural areas and to establish strong connections with the community elders in risk areas, with the aim of supporting these communities to condemn the practice. In the meantime, this harmful practice will continue, putting young girls at risk of significant trauma and HIV infection. This intervention must be in conjunction with the government, schools, NGOs and local communities, and it must become a priority.

Let our girls be girls