This week, a man named Eric Aniva from Malawi was arrested after the BBC broadcast the 27-minute radio report ” ‘Stealing Innocence’ in Malawi,” which featured Aniva bragging about being paid to sleep with more than 100 young girls and women, some as young as 12 years old.
Aniva is known in Malawi as a “hyena” man — someone hired by families to have sex with girls after their first menstruation. Aniva told the BBC he was HIV-positive and had not disclosed this information to the families who hired him. He is one of 10 hyenas in the Nsanje district, where he lives, and is paid from $4 to $7 each time, reported the BBC.
We spoke to two staffers from Equality Now, an international human rights organization devoted to girls and women’s issues, to learn more: Christa Stewart, a program manager, and Naitore Nyamu, a program officer based in Kenya.
Why are men like Aniva called “hyenas”?
“I don’t know,” says Stewart. “Obviously [the name suggests] the idea of a predator, but I would imagine it’s also not a very highly regarded animal.”
Why would people pay a man to have sex with young girls and women?
According to Stewart, the practice is viewed as a way to ritually cleanse girls after their first period, usually within a three-day window. Some families tell girls they will get infections if they don’t have sex with a “hyena,” says Stewart.
But it also happens in other life stages, too — after an abortion or when a woman becomes a widow, reports the BBC.
According to a study on sexual cleansing rituals in Western Kenya from 2007, sexual intercourse is seen as a sacred rite when performed as a ritual — and has the power to cleanse evil spirits and sanctify.
Would a “hyena” use condoms?
Unprotected sex is considered part of the ritual.
“Especially with this man disclosing his HIV status, there are major health consequences for girls,” says Stewart.
How widespread is this practice in Malawi, and does it occur in other parts of Africa?
Stewart calls adolescence “a hot point for mistreatment” as some cultures have developed practices to prevent female sexual autonomy. She points to female genital mutilation and forced child marriage as other examples.
“I think the fact that [Aniva] thought he could communicate so openly with the community shows that we’re in an uphill battle,” Stewart says.
Stewart understands the practice to be particularly common in the southern part of Malawi. “Indications are that it may be occurring in the more rural and traditional communities,” she says. But it may be taking place in urban areas, too — the way some families continued the practice of female genital mutilation by keeping it a secret and pushing it “underground,” suggests Stewart.
Nyamu, who is based in Kenya, says, “In many countries on the African continent, including in Kenya, the idea of ‘sexual cleansing’ exists.” But the term “hyena” seems “specific to the southern tip of Malawi,” she says.
Has the government of Malawi done anything about this particular case and the practice in general?
President Peter Mutharika ordered Aniva’s arrest a few days after his story came out on the BBC. Stewart sees this as an indication that Malawi is moving in the right direction. “I was really happy to see in the press that they arrested this man. The president said that he did not condone this practice, that this practice does not have a place in society.”
She adds that the country has made other positive strides. In February 2015, a new law set the legal marriage age at 18. Now Stewart says the government officials need to enforce the law.
“Even when there are good rules on the books,” she says, “there’s always that gap with reality and how [the laws are] being perceived on the ground.”
Change needs to extend beyond the government, says Nyamu: “There is also a need to engage the opinion leaders, including religious leaders, the elders and chiefs in an effort to change attitudes as they are often the gatekeepers.”
What’s next for Aniva and for his victims?
“We’ll be looking to make sure the prosecution addresses the harms that [Aniva has] inflicted on these girls and that they have a measure of restitution, whatever that may be,” says Stewart.
“When other countries see this perpetrator brought to justice, it gives people pause,” she adds. “It has a ripple effect.”