It’s an old but harmful practice in this sub-Saharan African country where child marriage is rife: girls as young as 7 or 8 enduring ‘sexual cleansing’ rituals that put their health at risk.
When Grace Mwase was 10 years old, she was taken outside her Malawian village and taught how to “handle” a man.
At an age when most children are learning fractions in Grade 4 classrooms, Grace was taken to a secluded camp and taught about sexual positions and pleasing her future husband.
After one week, Grace and the other girls were sent home with an assignment: find a man and practise.
“It’s too bad,” says the slight, soft-spoken girl from southern Malawi’s Golden Village, speaking through an interpreter. “It’s not good for us girls, going there.”
Grace is now 14 but looks like she still belongs in elementary school, swinging her feet in pink plastic shoes and occasionally erupting in trills of giggles.
But the serious teenager has a quiet confidence about her. In December, she agreed to speak with reporters about a sensitive and secretive topic: initiation.
Initiation rituals are believed to be widely practised in Malawi, a sub-Saharan country of 16 million and one of the poorest places on earth. But the rituals are often shrouded in secrecy and girls are reluctant to discuss them publicly.
The rite of passage is an age-old tradition meant to prepare children for adulthood. But in communities such as Golden Village, where Grace lives with her grandmother, these rituals are impinging on children’s rights and fuelling some of Malawi’s most persistent health problems: underage pregnancy, child marriage and HIV.
“Instead of teaching girls how to remain in school, girls are taught how to be good wives, how to please man in bed,” says Joyce Mkandawire, the communications advisor for the Girls Empowerment Network, a grassroots organization in Malawi advocating for girls’ rights.
“Those practices are very harmful to girls. (They are) locking them in the cycle of poverty because what they’re telling them is, ‘As soon as possible, get married and bear children.’”
The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has expressed concern with the practice. In a 2005 study, the commission interviewed 262 Malawians about their cultural practices and nearly 80 per cent mentioned the existence of chinamwali, or initiation.
In its report, the commission found that certain rituals promoted the sexual abuse of girls, giving them information that “does more harm than good” and exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases.
“The acts did not only promote the sexual abuse of children and put the health of the girls at risk, but they also violated the right of girls to free choice which is (inherent) in human beings,” the report said.
Circumcision, or jando — which is performed during boys’ initiation rituals — was also reported, but to a lesser degree. Only 16.5 per cent of Malawians interviewed said boys underwent circumcision, sometimes under unhygienic conditions, according to the report.
“Most of the practices that pertain to rites of passage revolve around grooming the girl child for a married adult life,” the report reads. “The old saying ‘mwamuna sauzidwa’ (a man needs not be told what to do) was cited at a number of sites.”
Initiation rituals differ across regions and ethnicities, however, and they don’t always encourage premarital sex. In the northern district of Mzimba, for example, initiated girls are advised to avoid sex before marriage, according to the MHRC report.
But in other areas — particularly where the Yao and Lomwe ethnicities are dominant — girls are encouraged to have sex after being initiated. This first sexual experience is referred to as a “cleansing” because it is believed to “clear the dust” of childhood.
Grace was told she would get a skin disease if she didn’t do her sexual cleansing. She was also forbidden from using a condom — particularly dangerous advice in southern Malawi, where HIV prevalence is 14.5 per cent, nearly twice as high as other regions.
But Grace says she refused to do her sexual cleansing — her grandmother didn’t pressure her, and when the other girls asked about it, she would just stay silent, she says.
But according to Mkandawire, girls often don’t have a choice in the matter. In the MHRC study, 10.3 per cent of people interviewed mentioned the practice of fisi for sexual cleansing — adult men in the community hired by the girl’s own parents. The word fisi literally translates as “hyena.”
“A hyena moves at night. Likewise, this hyena man comes at night into the girl’s bedroom,” Mkandawire explains. “The girl doesn’t even know who is the ‘hyena’ coming to have sex with her.”
Girls are typically initiated after their first period, but some are sent to the camps as young as 7 or 8, according to Harriet Chanza with the World Health Organization in Malawi.
“They are forced by their parents and their guardians in the area to go through those things,” says Chanza, a national officer who focuses on sexual and reproductive health. “If anyone refuses, they will definitely be looked at as an outcast.”
Even though some girls are encouraged to have premarital sex, getting pregnant out of wedlock is still taboo, says Jean Mwandira, a reproductive health specialist with the United Nations Population Fund in Malawi.
Child marriage is rampant in Malawi — on average, one out of two girls are married by 18 — and parents often force their pregnant daughters to get married, she says.
“For them, it’s better to be pregnant when you’re in a family situation than when you’re just alone,” Mwandira says.
Changing the culture
Mwandira acknowledges there are positive aspects to the initiation rituals: for instance, lessons that teach girls to respect their elders or take care of their bodies.
But eliminating the harmful elements is a delicate and difficult task. Half of Malawi’s population lives below the poverty line and there’s money to be made from the rituals — everyone from the hyenas to the women who perform the initiations are paid for their services.
Initiation is also considered a crucial milestone by those who practise it. How do you remove a health risk so tightly woven into the community’s cultural fabric?
One step is to engage the village chiefs who allow the practice to survive, says Chanza. In Malawi, village chiefs and traditional authorities have enormous influence over their communities. They also have the power to set bylaws prohibiting the practice.
“They’re the custodians of the culture,” Chanza says. “We’ve started having dialogue sessions with them. We’ve started talking to them about the dangers of being taught these things.”
The Girls Empowerment Network is also working with village leaders to stop harmful cultural practices. But for Mkandawire, the girls themselves must lead the change.
In Golden Village, Grace is determined to finish school and vows not to marry until she does so. She is also now working with the Girls Empowerment Network and speaks with girls returning from the camps to warn them about the dangers of unprotected sex.
In what Mkandawire considers a major step forward, Grace’s community recently allowed her to attend an initiation camp and speak to the girls there.
Don’t do your sexual cleansing, she says she told them. It’s not good for a girl.
“If I go talk to them, they listen to me,” Grace says. “Now I’m happy because if I see some of my friends, I’m proud of them; they didn’t go for sexual cleansing.”