In remote areas of Malawi, it’s traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a paid sex worker known as a “hyena” as soon as they reach puberty. Village elders believe the act is a form of “ritual cleansing,” but the BBC recently interviewed one “hyena” who is HIV positive and has had sex with hundreds of girls.
Eric Aniva, who is in his 40s, is a sex worker in the Nsanje district of southern Malawi. He was described as “enthusiastic for media attention,” and he told the BBC:
“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. They actually are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.”
But girls in a nearby local village told a different story:
“There was nothing else I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents,” one girl told the BBC. “If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was scared.”
Locals consider the “cleansing” necessary in order to “avoid infection with their parents or the rest of the community.” Sex with the hyena must never be protected with the use of condoms. They believe that a hyena’s good morals will protect their daughters from being infected.
In actuality, it’s led to Malawi having one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, with more than 1 million living with the disease.
While officials know the rituals need changing, they stop short of condemning it. Dr May Shaba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Gender and Welfare, said:
‘We are not going to condemn these people. But we are going to give them information that they need to change their rituals.’
One of Aniva’s two wives, Fanny, told the BBC that she does not want the ritual to happen to her daughter:
“I don’t want that to happen,” she says. “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.”
“You hated it when it happened to you?” the interviewer asked.
“I still hate it right up until now.”
“Not my daughter. I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.”
“So, you’re fighting against it, but you are still doing it yourself?” asked the BBC.
“No, as I said, I’m stopping now.”
“For sure. For real, I’m stopping.”