The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Malawi police arrest HIV-positive man paid by parents to have sex with scores of young girls

Eric Aniva near Blantyre, Malawi, on June 30. (Eldson Chagara/AP)

Eric Aniva, who is HIV positive, unabashedly claimed he has had sex with more than 100 women, most of them underage. Some were as young as 12.

He was paid to do this, often by the girls’ parents, he said.

On Tuesday, he was arrested on orders from President Peter Mutharika, who learned of the incidents through an interview Aniva gave the BBC last week.

Aniva was charged with defilement, Malawi Police Inspector General Lexten Kachama told the Associated Press.

“Out of the many women he had sex with, most of them were underage children,” Kachama said, meaning they were younger than 16. The age of consent in Malawi was changed from 13 to 16 in 2011, the Guardian reported.

Aniva is what’s known as a “hyena,” or a “fisis.” The term, used in certain villages in the southeastern African country, refers to a male who is hired to have sex with women and girls for ritualistic purposes, the Atlantic reported.

There are several circumstances in which a hyena might be used, but all are centered on the idea of ritualistic “sexual cleansing,” or “kusasa fumbi.”

For example, in many rural areas of the country, a recent widow is expected to have sex with a member of her husband’s family to exorcise the spirit of the deceased. If she doesn’t, then any future deaths in the village can be blamed on her.

If a family member would rather, though, he can pay a “hyena” to have sex with the widow in his stead, the New York Times reported.

And such hyenas are often employed to have sex with girls as young as 10.

It’s customary for girls to go through this sexual ritual immediately after their first menstruation cycle and before their first marriage. That’s generally early in life — In Malawi, 46.9 percent of girls are married before they are 18, according to the International Center for Research on Women, even though, as Al Jazeera noted, the country’s parliament passed a law just last year outlawing marriage before 18.

The girls reportedly hate the ritual but feel helpless to stop it.

“They have no choice,” Harriet Chanza, a national professional officer for family health and population at the World Health Organization, told CNN. “They are forced by their parents and guardians to go through those things. If anyone refuses, they would definitely be looked at as an outcast. There is a lot of peer pressure.”

The name hyena derives from the fact that they are “supposed to operate in stealth and at night,” according to the New York Times.

Eric Aniva has been neither stealthy nor secretive.

Last week, Aniva, a resident of Nsanje district, in southern Malawi, gave an extensive interview with the BBC. During the interview, in what the author described as “boasting,” Aniva claimed to have had sex with 104 women, most of them the age of schoolchildren.

“Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls,” Aniva told the station. “Some girls are just 12 or 13 years old, but I prefer them older. All these girls find pleasure in having me as their hyena. They actually are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.”

The BBC’s Ed Butler, though, thinks he simply lost count by this point and estimates the number to be much higher.

Aniva also said he has HIV, and, as dictated by the rules of kusasa fumbi, never wore a condom.

Forgoing a condom is common practice for hyenas, Joyce Mkandawire, the communications adviser at Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi, a young womens’ rights organization, told CNN in 2014.

One reason is that a hyena, who is thought of in an almost spiritual manner, is considered to be high in morals and, as a result, free of HIV, the BBC reported. Aniva, who knew he was HIV-positive, continued performing the rituals without disclosing his diagnosis. It’s unclear whether he infected anyone.

It’s likely that many more hyenas — and many of the women and children Aniva had sex with — also have HIV. According to a 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, sponsored in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.6 percent of people ages 15 to 49 in Malawi are HIV-positive.

After the July 21 publication of the BBC report, the president’s spokesman, Mgeme Kalilani, released a statement obtained by the organization.

“While we must promote positive cultural values and positive socialization of our children, the president says harmful cultural and traditional practices cannot be accepted in this country,” it read. “All people involved in this malpractice should be held accountable for subjecting their children and women to this despicable evil. These horrific practices although done by a few also tarnish the image of the whole nation of Malawi internationally and bring shame to us all.”

It added that Aniva will “further be investigated for exposing the young girls to contracting HIV and further be charged accordingly.”

The president, NGOs, and health and humanitarian organizations are not the only ones who hope to end sexual cleansing.

Many of those involved take issue with it.

Fanny, one of Aniva’s two wives, hates the practice, even though they married after she was widowed and he “cleansed” her.

“I want this tradition to end.” Fanny told the BBC. “We are forced to sleep with the hyenas. It’s not out of our choice, and that I think is so sad for us as women.”

When considering his daughter, even Aniva himself said he wants the practice to end.

“Not my daughter,” he said. “I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.”

The president has also ordered investigations into the parents involved in Aniva’s many “cleansings.”