Chifuniro Kandiado clutches her baby, who automatically suckles her breast. After having to drop out of school, lately, she spends her days looking after her child. A forlorn look falls across her face as she recounts the night the baby was conceived.

“I was taken at night. I was pushed into a dormitory and they made me wear a mask so I couldn’t see what was happening. But a man came in. He started touching me but I fought back. I screamed. But at that moment, a woman – an elder – told me that I shouldn’t resist. She said, ‘It’s our culture. You have to accept it.’ I feel like I was raped,” she said to France 24.

In rural parts of Malawi, after a girl has her first period, she is forced to have sex with a man, who is then paid for his “services”. The girl’s parents are the ones who choose the usually much older man and he can earn between $4 to $7 for each girl. This ritual rape sees the man, known as a “hyena”, have sex with the young girl for as long as three days. The cultural practice is done as a way of initiating the girl’s entry into adulthood.

The girl is led to believe that she must consent, else diseases or bad luck will befall her family or the village. She is entrenched with such a foreboding sense of fear that she unwillingly concedes to what is required of her. Yet, most of the girls speak of how horrific and distressing they found the experience to be.

Kandiado still remains deeply traumatised by the encounter. She says that she is unhappy and feels that her future is doomed. Yet, according to village elders, it is not rape but a “ritual cleansing” that is an integral part of a young girl’s development. Mtolo village chief, Elena Mtolo, told France 24 that girls who don’t meet the hyenas could develop respiratory illnesses and other skin diseases. “Anybody can fall ill including the parents. As a parent and chief of the village I can also fall ill. It can happen. I have heard of other people falling ill because they didn’t follow our traditions,” she said.

Prior to the girl meeting the hyena, she must attend a sexual induction ceremony held by the elders and other local women. Amidst the hubbub of chants and dance, the women gyrate and re-enact sexual movements, persuading the young girl to follow suit. The idea behind it is to teach her how to satisfy a man in bed. It is believed that this lesson is both imperative and pertinent to ensure that her future husband will be satisfied and not seek pleasures from another woman. If her husband is not fulfilled, then it is likely that he will dump her. Meanwhile, the girl’s own sexual pleasure is never brought up in the ceremony.

The BBC spoke to one “hyena”, Eric Aniva, who claimed to have slept with over 100 girls and women. He admitted to being HIV positive ­but said that he never mentioned it to the girl or her parents. This “sexual cleansing tradition dictates that condoms must not be used. The local consensus is that the practice has no links to HIV since the hyenas are carefully selected and held in high regard. Yet, HIV continues to be a serious problem in Malawi, with the UN estimating that around 1 in 10 Malawians have the virus. Just a few days after the BBC report, Aniva was arrested as per the orders of President Peter Mutharika. “Harmful cultural and traditional practices cannot be accepted in this country,” Presidential spokesman Mgeme Kalilani said in a released statement. “All people involved in this malpractice should be held accountable for subjecting their children and women to this despicable evil.”

In Nov 2016, Aniya was sentenced on the charge of indulging in harmful practices, contrary to Section 5 of the Gender Equality Act of 2013, and for potentially infecting over 100 women and girls with HIV. In 2017, he was released after his lawyer said that he had served his full sentence.

Yet, the bigger issue is not Aniya – or even the hyenas, themselves. The government and local authorities need to implement more stringent measures to fully address this pernicious and retrograded system. Improved sexual education needs to be enforced in areas where sexual superstition and exploitation is prevalent. Nonchalance in the face of child rape is as unacceptable as the act itself.

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