“Hyena” or “fisi” refers to a specific male hired to have sex with women and girls for ritualistic purposes.

The Hyenas of Malawi perform the ritual “sexual cleansing” or “kusas fumbi” or “brushing off the dust.” Girls are forced to have sex with a hyena after their first menstrual cycle and before they marry as a rite of passage to adulthood. Furthermore, Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world — one out of every two girls are married before they turn eighteen years old. In 2015, Malawi’s Parliament passed a law outlawing marriage before eighteen in an effort to curb child marriages and the spread of HIV, but children under eighteen can still marry with parental consent under traditional law and the constitution. Thus, many of the girls forced to endure a Hyena encounter are children. Hyenas are also hired to sexually cleanse widows so that the husband’s spirit may rest in peace. It is culturally understood that sexual cleansing prepares a girl for marriage and that a widow must be cleansed to exorcise the spirit of her dead husband. The widow is traditionally cleansed by a family member on her husband’s side, but if the family member chooses not to or if there are not enough male family members then a hyena may be hired instead. Many of the women and girls in these situations hate the practice but feel helpless to stop it. Many of them are more afraid to challenge tradition then they are of rape or of contracting HIV/AIDS.

The spread of HIV/AIDS, especially among the younger population, has forced Malawi to reckon with traditional sexual initiation and cleansing. Hyenas are not required to wear condoms due to their spiritual status; it is believed they cannot contract HIV/AIDS. Some hyenas know they have HIV/AIDS, but do not inform the girl’s parents or widow’s family when they are hired. The 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey found that approximately ten percent of people ages fifteen to forty-nine in Malawi are HIV-positive.

Women and children have a fundamental human right to self-determination in the face of traditions that violate their rights and their bodies. Malawi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While Malawi’s central government publicly agrees to uphold the standards outlined in these conventions, they have thus far failed to apply them in the cultural context and make them accessible to the women and children who need protection. Article 3(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states, “States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety [and] health.” Article 5(a) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, stipulates that cultural patterns should be addressed to ensure “the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Women and children are denied the voice of consent in these interactions and deserve the right to their body regardless of their sex or age. The traditional practices of sexual cleansing ignore the rights of children and women, directly place them at a high risk for HIV/AIDS, and stand in direct opposition to the goals and purpose of the international agreements mentioned above.

The Malawian government does not endorse these tribal traditions, but it has been unable to end them. When asked about the tradition of sexual cleansing, Malawi’s presidential spokesman stated, “[w]hile we must promote positive cultural values and positive socialisation [sic] of our children, the president says harmful cultural and traditional practices cannot be accepted in this country.” The statement further indicated that “all people involved in this malpractice should be held accountable for subjecting their children and women to this despicable evil,” and that “[t]hese horrific practices although done by a few also tarnish the image of the whole nation of Malawi internationally and bring shame to us all.” The Malawian central government must continue to sensitize tribes and villagers on the risks of HIV/AIDS and how it is spread. While outlawing child marriages is a vital step, the laws must be followed by the villagers, who believe in sexual initiation practices, in order to have any significance.

It is possible for the Malawian people to end these practices of sexual initiation and cleansing, especially when they have strong role models to lead the way for cultural change. The central government needs to continue making strong partners, such as Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, a female chief of the Dedza district in Malawi. She is responsible for 900,000 people and has had incredible success with ending child marriage and encouraging parents to keep their children in school. Chief Kachindamoto has ended sexual initiation traditions and camps in her district. If regional chiefs balk at the termination of the camps, they are dismissed. Chief Kachindamoto has made great strides in addressing harmful traditions while keeping culture intact. Collaboration between local leaders like Chief Kachindamoto, national leaders, and international human rights standards is necessary to fight for individual rights without disbanding the individual’s culture. The traditions which recognize coming of age are important to cultural and individual identity, but children should be able to approach adulthood free from HIV/AIDS and sexual trauma.