Grace Mwase was just 10 years when she and a couple of young girls were led to a secluded hut in a village in Chiradzulu district of Malawi to take part in a rite of passage known as initiation.
At first, Mwase was excited about the ceremony, but this turned into anger and disappointment when she got to the hut and learned the true purpose of the initiation. She spent two weeks at the initiation camp learning how to engage in sexual acts.
The women, who had accompanied her and the other girls to the ceremony told them that as soon as they got back home, they should cook, clean and have sex.
“They taught us only how you can handle a man, So you should be dancing for the man. The man should be on top of you and you should be dancing for him, making him happy. Girls in this village are forced to go through this sexual cleansing ritual for fear of being ostracized. If they refuse, their skin will also become dry and brittle, and they will be breaking tradition, Mwase said.
The worrying development is that these girls are encouraged to have sex without protection – no condoms at all.
Mwase, out of health risks, refused to have sex after the ceremony but she had to keep this decision from her grandmother, who would have forced her to do so.
Her grandmother, like several others, would have paid a man to take Mwase’s virginity. These men are known as “hyenas”, and they are often invited to have sex with girls who have gone through initiation together.
This practice made headlines in 2016 after news site BBC exposed a man who was hired to sleep with girls. Eric Aniva was HIV positive and said to have sexually cleansed over 100 women and girls.
Since then, many activists have been campaigning against the practice, which is believed to be still ongoing in some remote areas in Malawi.
For locals, this custom gives women the kind of honour they deserve.
“A woman’s capacity to elicit change, to be powerful and empowered arises from her relative success in being a proper woman. Through this, she acquires the respect of her spouse and of the neighbourhood as a moral community. This is what a girl learns during her initiation into womanhood, and that she is told during her wedding ceremony,” Thera Rasing, an anthropologist who has studied girls’ initiations in Zambia, said.
Since the majority of people are living in poverty in Malawi, the practice also affords parents the opportunity to transfer the upbringing costs of their girls to men who impregnate them.
Still, the sexual cleansing ritual is heavily being criticized over public health concerns as girls who are told to have unprotected sex risk acquiring sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.
Others also get complications during pregnancy and delivery, with some losing their lives or developing obstetric fistula, one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries.
Apart from the trauma they go through, the initiations affect their rights to health and liberty, education, and dignity.
As some local human rights groups continue to educate girls about the dangers of the practice, it is the hopes of many that these girls would stay away from unprotected sex right after coming out of initiation camps.
Below is a video of an initiate telling her story to news site France24: