The sentencing to two years in jail for an HIV-positive Malawian man who said he had sex with at least 100 girls and women in traditional cleansing rituals has attracted mixed reactions with gender activisits expressing dissatisfaction that it is manifestly inadequate while some people from Nsanje have vowed to continue with “harmful” cultural practices.
Eric Aniva, 45, of Nsanje district bordering with Mozambique, was prosecuted on the orders of President Peter Mutharika after publicly speaking about his role as a “hyena” in a BBC radio documentary earlier this year.
Women’s Human Rights organization alongside Cultural and religious leaders from African countries currently meeting in Lilongwe, described the sentence to Aniva as “lenient”.
After the Principal Resident Magistrate Innocent Nebi handed out the two year sentence, Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRC), the NGO Gender Coordinating Network and the African Women Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) called for a review of the sentence.
Through a joint communiqué, the organisations have called upon the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Mrs Mary Kachale, to seriously consider appealing the sentence as it is not deterrent enough for other would be offenders.
“We are shocked and appalled that a man, living with HIV has for over two decades sexually violated children as young as 12 years of age in an outdated retrogressive culture that is harmful for women and girls and the magistrate saw it fit to only give him 2 years jail term” said Emma Kaliya of the NGO Gender Coordinating Network.
“Aniva confessed to have been sexually abusing women and young girls. What message does this send to all perpetrators of sexual violence hiding behind discriminatory and destructive cultural practices? That you can get away with only two years? This is a disgrace and a big let-down to the women and girls of Malawi. The courts of justice must revoke and reconsider this sentence,” she added.
As the first case to be tried under the Malawi Gender Equality Act 2013, the organisations observed that the sentence should have been higher to deter potential offenders and to bar communities from persisting with the practice.
“These are the destructive cultures we are fighting against that have continued to endanger and harm women and girls in Africa. This particular case presented a great opportunity for the Malawi Judicial system to affirm its commitment to Justice for women and girls in Malawi but it has failed them,” FEMNET’s Head of Advocacy, Hellen Apila said.
She added, “Persistent sexual violations under the pretext of culture continue to dodge women and girls in the world and this must be vehemently condemned. We urge the government of Malawi not to waste this important opportunity to make landmark strides in ending destructive cultural practices by invoking the full force of the law and any other cases of sexual violations that infringe on the rights of women and girls”.
The charges that Aniva was answering attract a maximum jail term of five years or an alternative of K 1 million fine.
Custom in Nsanje demands that a man, known as a “hyena”, is paid to have sex with bereaved widows to exorcise evil spirits and to prevent other deaths occurring.
At the request of a girl’s parents, the “hyena” is also paid to have sex with adolescent girls to mark their passage to womanhood after their first menstruation.
But as Lameck Masina reports on Voice of America, the verdict has attracted anger and resentment among people in Nsanje.
Dinwell Ching’oma said the sentencing of Aniva will never stop them from performing their cultural practices.
“What government should have done is to teach us to reform our culture. For example, if they just advised us that we should first go for HIV testing before we engage in any cultural practice that involves sex,” said Ching’oma.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) also quoted local farmer Ganizani Ngololombe, 38, who said that the ritual of sexual cleansing by “hyenas” would not be easily stopped “because it is deeply rooted here.”
However, Maziko Matemba, director of the Health and Rights Education Program non-profit group, said the sentencing “has opened a new chapter.”
Matemba said: “As a country we have a lot of work to do in raising awareness on HIV and AIDS prevention and its impact.”
Nsanje district is rich in cultural practices that require men to sleep with women. Besides Fisi and Kusasa Fumbi, there are four more cultural practices that require men sleeping with women.
One of them is Dzwande, in which a man is hired to sleep with a single mother when her newly born baby is six months old. Village elders say the aim is to keep the baby away from disease.
Aniva earlier told both local and international media that he slept with more than 100 young girls and widows during an initiation ceremony known as “Kusasa Fumbi” or “Removing Dust,” and “Fisi” or Hyena.
Kusasa Fumbi is another custom practiced in the area: hiring a man to sleep with young girls who have reached puberty in order to prepare them for married life.
Meanwhile, Aniva’s lawyer Micheal Goba Chipeta is launching an appeal bid at the High Court, saying the sentencing and conviction were erroneous in law.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :