Three months after a Malawian man who is HIV-positive admitted to having sex with hundreds of women as part of a rite of passage tradition, one woman who was forced to go through a similar initiation, Natasha Annie Tonthola, has come forward to tell her story. She recounted the terrifying ordeal to BBC, saying that the experience inspired her to campaign against the long-standing tradition of sexual cleansing that is still rife in some parts of the country.
“My father was from a village near Mulanje, in the south of the country, and I was sent there for the ceremony after my first period. You don’t have a choice. It happens to every girl in the village,” she explained.
Rite of Passage
In some parts of Southern Malawi, young girls are required to have sex with paid male sex workers, locally known as “hyenas,” after receiving their first menstrual period.
The rite of passage lasts for three days and the “hyenas” are paid between $4 and $7 each time. Locals believe the sexual cleansing tradition prevents diseases.
However, this outdated practice exposes young girls to the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and becoming pregnant.
According to Tonthola, young girls are taken to a secluded place where they spend three days learning different aspects of womanhood, including how to please a man. These lessons are taught by elderly women and on the last day a “hyena” is invited to cleanse the initiates.
She adds that the girls are blindfolded because they are not allowed to know the identity of the man.
“We were young girls, so we were tense, and this man would push our legs open. I found it painful. When he finished, I was relieved. The elder came in and said, congratulations, you have finished the initiation ceremony, and you are a woman now,” she revealed.
“But the hyena didn’t use protection and some of the girls got pregnant.”
Tonthola says many girls are often excited about the ritual because they have been brainwashed to believe it’s an important tradition.
After the ritual, the initiates are not allowed to talk or play with those who haven’t gone through the process. She says she wasn’t even allowed to talk to her younger sisters about it.
HIV Positive Hyena
In July, BBC interviewed one of the paid male sex workers in Malawi, Eric Aniva, who revealed that he had unprotected sex with women despite knowing that he is HIV positive.
He was later arrested and arraigned in court for admitting to having sex with minors.
Last year, Malawi proscribed child marriage and raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, a step that local human rights activists hope will end the sexual initiation of minors.