A man who was paid to have sex with more than 100 young girls and women in Malawi is receiving two years of hard labor as punishment.
Working as what Malawians call a “hyena man,” Eric Aniva had sex with children and widows as part of a custom believed to offer ritual cleansing after a first period or widowhood. Though he is HIV-positive, Aniva did not wear condoms during sex. Now some women’s organizations in Malawi are calling his sentence inadequate.
“It feels like a missed opportunity to send out a strong message,” says Anber Raz, the deputy director of Donor Direct Action, an international women’s rights organization. “Having said that, it’s even great he got convicted. Often in cases such as this, you see complete impunity.”
Raz says the light sentence is due to a lack of witnesses willing to testify against Aniva. Malawi’s president, Peter Mutharika, publicly supported prosecuting Aniva for defilement of young girls. But no girls came forward to testify, Raz says. So instead, Aniva was tried for “harmful cultural practice” for having sex with the widows, a lesser charge under Malawi’s Gender Equality Act of 2013.
The girls abused by Raz are difficult to identify, Raz explains, because they’re reluctant to talk about their experiences.
Women’s groups in Malawi are pressing for the sentence to be reviewed. Raz says they might succeed because of the international attention this case has received. But whether or not the sentence stands, she believes that people should not excuse abuse in the name of tradition.
“Calling [these activities] ‘cultural practices’ kind of masks what this is,” Raz says. “Underneath it all, it’s pure and simple violence against women and girls.”