SOUTHERN AFRICA ∙ Sexual initiation in Southern Malawi

Traditionalism in Southern Malawi has a privileged role in social cohesion, local organization and maintaining a strong ethnic identity in a very ethnically diverse state. However, a particular rite practiced in the area by groups like the Yao and the Lomme, poses serious challenges to the rights to education, health and dignity of local girls. To transition from childhood to womanhood, girls are required to attend an initiation camp. But not many girls want to talk about what happens there. There, they have to learn the supposed duties of a woman: how to please a man and get rid of “child dust”[1]. What that means practically is that girls- as young as the age of 6- learn how to have sex. They learn by simulating different positions among themselves but also by practicing the act. A male sex worker, called a “hyena”, often a lot older than the girls, is called in to take the girls’ virginity so that they are ready for their husband. He is remunerated with 4 to 7 dollars an hour. The long held tradition is not considered as rape by locals but rather as a norm to become an integral part of the community. Girls are threatened of becoming outcasts- even by their own mothers- or told that they will get a skin disease if they do not complete it.

The practice infringes on the rights of girls to education, health, liberty and dignity. The health risks are immense. Girls are not taught about the risks of STIs or pregnancy. On the contrary, the practice can account in part for the high HIV contamination in the country. According to the WHO, 10% of girls and women from the age of 15 to 49 are infected with HIV. Teenage pregnancies account for 35% of all pregnancies and contribute to the high mortality at childbirth. Moreover, a 2013 WHO study ranked Malawi 10th in child marriage in the world with 50% of girls being married[2].

The direct consequences of these facts is the limited access to education. Married and pregnant girls are unable to pursue professional development as they often do not continue to secondary education. More alarmingly, according to the UN Girl Education Initiative, in 2010, only 52% of girls in Malawi completed primary education[3]. Health risks and limited education can lock the girls into poverty and constrain their personal and professional aspirations.

How can change be brought about? The initiation is condemned by Human Rights activists and organizations such as the UN Malawi Human Rights Commission and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative. But organizations formed by survivors and objectors to the practice are perhaps the most involved in fighting it. They understand the need to accommodate cultural practices to modern health standards and eliminate its harmful parts. A member of the Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi stresses how positive aspects of the rite such as respecting elders and taking care of your body should be kept and reinforced by proper theoretical sexual education[4]. The government is also trying to tackle the issue. In 2016, President Mutharika directly ordered the arrest of a Hyena who had slept with more than 100 girls. Political and cultural opposition is well entrenched especially at the local level where authorities and chiefs of local government claim their legitimacy from their status as custodians of such practices. However, increased medialization domestically and internationally has reinforced the efforts of governmental and NGO bodies in the struggle for girls’ rights.

Article written by Vasiliki MALOUCHOU



[1]“Malawi Girls Initiation”.CNN. Feb. 2014.Web.

[2] “Child Marriage”. World Health Organization. 2013. Web.

[3] Malawi Snapshot. United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative. UNESCO. 2010. Web.

[4] “Malawians Take Steps to End Sexual Initiation of Girls”. Jennifer Yang. The Star. Jan. 2014. Web.




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