Sexual Cleansing Rituals

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Sexual cleansing (kusasa fumbi) is an African tradition practiced in parts of Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Ivory Coast, and Congo. In the tradition, a girl or woman is expected to have sex as a cleansing ritual after her first period, after becoming widowed, or after having an abortion.

Sexual cleansing is sometimes performed by a selected future husband for a girl or otherwise by a paid sex worker.

A hyena is a traditional position in some parts of southern Malawi, held by a man who initiates young women into adulthood through sex. A hyena is a man paid to have sex with children between the ages of 12–17, as a part of a rite of passage called “kusasa fumbi” (‘brushing off the dust’) (sexual cleansing). The rite lasts for three days. Hyenas are paid from $4 to $7 each time. The rite is believed to prevent disease. Hyenas are chosen for their moral character and are believed to be incapable of catching diseases such as HIV/AIDS, even though of course some catch it. It can place the young girls at risk of HIV infection because the hyena has sexual intercourse with all the girls and the ritual requires the exchange of sexual fluids so condoms are not used.

Sexual cleansing is considered a rite of passage for young girls in order to initiate them into womanhood. They are taught to believe that unless they undergo sexual cleansing, they will suffer great misfortune or become diseased. Once the girls seem ready to understand the concept of sex, their parents (those who can afford it) send them to “initiation ceremonies” or sex camps where they are made to complete the ritual. In the camps, men (often sex workers) are hired to finish the rite by having sex with these young girls. The ‘Hyena’ is forbidden from wearing a condom and the use of any other form of protection is against the rules of the ritual. The ritual lasts for three days.

The practice of sexual cleansing not only is a form of rape, but also plays a big role in contributing to the increasing number of HIV/AIDS cases in Malawi. Going back to the BBC article about the ‘Hyena’ man, it was later found that Eric Aniva (the name of the ‘Hyena’ man talked about in the article) was HIV positive. He’s one of 10 ‘Hyenas’ in his community and is paid $4 to $7 each time he is hired. In another article also by BBC, Mr. Aniva says that he did not mention his HIV status to those who hired him. Shortly after the initial article gained media attention, a warrant for his arrest was issued by Malawi President, Peter Mutharika. In his own words, the President was quoted saying, “This man (Mr. Aniva) was abusing children. He infringed their rights and I am sure some have dropped out of school and others have been made pregnant or contracted the HIV. So arresting him is one of the solutions and the best sentence for him would be life imprisonment.” Presidential spokesman Mgeme Kalilani said in a statement, “(Mr. Aniva would) further be investigated for exposing the young girls to contracting HIV and further be charged accordingly.” Mr. Aniva claims to have slept with 104 women and girls, unfortunately.

If this ritual is clearly very horrible, why does it still persist? It is very sad and frightening to know that such a practice has managed to survive all these years despite the progress and development that the world has seen.

In parts of Kenya, widows are viewed as impure. A tradition to be cleansed to chase away demons involves having sex. It is often forced upon the woman by the deceased husband’s family. Those refusing to be cleansed risk getting beaten by superstitious villagers, who may also harm the woman’s children. It is argued that this notion arose from the idea that if a husband dies, the woman may have performed witchcraft against him. Cleansing can be done by the deceased husband’s brother or other relative or otherwise by a paid sex worker. Typically, after sex, the widow burns her clothes, and the man shaves the widow’s hair often outside so that the neighborhood can witness that the widow is now cleansed. A chicken is slaughtered at the end of the ceremony, which usually lasts from three to seven days. Widow cleansing was outlawed in Kenya in a 2015 domestic offences bill.

In Malawi, the practice of sexual cleansing is largely confined to Salima, Chikwawa, and Nsanje District. It is also practiced in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Ivory Coast, and Congo.

In Malawi, there is a clear favoritism of boys over girls. Could this be a reason why the practice of sexual cleansing isn’t given the urgency it deserves? Many of these young girls do not understand what they are forced into doing. The parents or guardians need to be informed of the consequences of unprotected sex and how this tradition contributes towards the spreading of STDs, or contraction of HIV/AIDS, for example. More awareness should be spread about this practice, so that these young girls understand that what is being done to them is so wrong in so many ways.

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