By Josephine Chinele
Young girls in Nsanje District are being forced to sleep with elderly men to perform sexual cleansing rituals for bizarre reasons, The Sunday Times has established.
The practice, being done in secrecy, is exposing the young girls, aged between 15 and 25, to early pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV and Aids.
Below are the reasons we found that are being used to justify the sex with the girls by communities in traditional Authorities (T/A) Chimombo and Malemia in the district:
- when there is a newborn,
- when preparing a kiln of bricks,
- when a girl has a miscarriage,
- when illness befalls a family and
- when a man dies and
- before a maiden row of a canoe.
The impact of these harmful practices on the girls is apparent. Nsanje District Hospital Youth Friendly Coordinator, Alinafe Zaina, said the hospital registers more than 150 STI cases (young people aged 10-24) quarterly, which is translating to 37 cases in a month.
“We are concerned that many youths are presenting STIs and unintended pregnancies. This is happening because they are being forced to have sex. When they reach certain ages, they are believed to have become of age and old enough to have sex,” he said.
Nsanje District Hospital records indicate that, in August alone, the facility attended to 12 post-abortion care cases.
“It’s hard for one to refuse to perform a sexual cleansing ritual because it’s part of our tradition…girls just agree for peace to prevail, we have no say on these issues,” said Chimombo Youth Network Chairperson, Annie Kacholo, a young activist in Nsanje.
Kacholo revealed that youths that are discouraging the harmful cultural practices are threatened.
“We have tried to enlighten communities on the ills of these rituals but we encounter a lot of challenges. We are insulted left, right and centre and we seem to have no solid backing on our advocacy.”
Apparently, there is money involved. Families hire the girls to offer sexual cleansing services at a fee. The minimum is K4,000 and maximum is K16,000, varying according to the type of assignment.
The assignments vary because there are several instances that require the acts to be performed and make the gods happy.
Another youth, Feston Thamsen of Chakanja Village, T/A Chimombo said, if the girls refuse to sleep with anyone for the ritual, the family experiences misfortunes.
“Apart from the parents becoming disappointed, something very bad happens to the family and, in extreme cases, death strikes. I have personally witnessed three families that experienced misfortunes after they ignored these traditions,” he said.
We could not, however, independently verify Thamsen’s claim.
“But the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections is very high because the rituals are done without condoms. They may dilute the whole process,” he said.
Janet Chilangwe of T/A Malemia said she knows of a girl who was impregnated and infected with HIV after being forced to sleep with a stranger.
“Young women who are believed to have had an abortion are forced to sleep with strangers to cleanse them. These rituals are done to cleanse so many things in our society,” she said.
The youth said traditional leaders are not helping them because they are benefiting from the harmful cultural practices.
T/A Chimombo in an interview with The Sunday Times said the sexual cleansing rituals still happen but in a different form because of the advent of the HIV and Aids pandemic.
“We have become flexible. Instead of using strangers to do the cleansing, we are now using couples within the clan to perform the sexual ritual…. May be the youth making these claims do not know about this new trend, that much, that’s why they are saying this,” he said.
He said all T/As have by-laws but their enforcement varies from one area to the other, saying he currently enforces them.
“If one is found practising harmful cultural practices, they are supposed to give me a goat,” he said.
But T/A Chimombo dismissed the claims saying they are trying everything possible to deal with harmful cultural practices, especially those that are to do with sexual cleansing.
“…the youth are not fair (to us and themselves) for not reporting the issue to relevant authorities to act… This is against the law. As a traditional leader, I make sure that I deal with the culprits should anything be brought to my attention. We are very serious about ending these harmful cultural practices,” he said.
But Nsanje District Commissioner, Reinghard Chavula, said she could not rule out the claims the youth are making.
“We follow up on these issues regularly but we are aware of the fact that other cultures might have gone underground….This has been a tradition here, so there is a possibility that it may not vanish overnight,” she said.
On the by-laws, Chavula said the council is working on having uniform by-laws for all areas in the district.
Malawi National Youth Policy of August 2013 recognises the fact that youths remain vulnerable to many health risks such as STIs including HIV and Aids.
The policy pledges to promote general health and non-discriminatory sexual reproductive health and rights of young people.
It further promises to ensure that sexual and cultural practices that promote the spread of STIs including HIV and Aids, early pregnancies and teenage pregnancies are discouraged.