Fighting Sexual Cleansings

by ACT

  • Posted on May 4, 2018

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Child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon. Its prevalence in history is a reflection of the exploitative nature of the patriarchal structures that were, and are still in place. Recent stories in the news about sexual abuse in entertainment, politics, sports, business and other sectors are part of a culture of violence against women, whether it is physical, psychological or even social. ‘Sexual cleansing’ is a ‘ritual’ found in some African countries where ACT is working.

Back in 2016, we covered an article about sexual cleansing in Malawi published by the BBC (The man hired to have sex with children). In this article, Ed Butler brought to light the tradition ritual in Malawi whereby men, known as ‘hyenas’, are paid to have unprotected sex with girls once they reach puberty (i.e. menstruate for the first time), or with women newly widowed or who have undergone an abortion. This harmful cultural practice is described by those who endorse it as a form of ‘cleansing’ required by the community as part of their tradition. Butler interviewed one ‘hyena’, who admitted to having sex with 104 women and girls – most of who were ‘school girls’. Worse still, this ‘hyena’ was HIV positive and admitted that he did not divulge this information to the girl’s families when they hired him. Consequently, the practice is especially endangering to women and girls.

Not only do the women and girls suffer both emotional and physical trauma and are at risk of becoming pregnant, the entire community is at risk of infection. It is justly labelled as a form of gender-based violence. Malawi had a very high rate of mortality from HIV/AIDS but the rate has been coming down.

Since ACT published its blog on this story, the ‘hyena’ from Butler’s article who was sent to jail when the story came out, has completed his two-year sentence and has returned to his village. The ritual has now been outlawed by the Malawi government.

Ulemu Project

In 2016, we emphasised the role of education in tackling this major issue. Education can tackle misplaced beliefs about sexual health and, for girls, provide alternatives to early marriage and/or pregnancy. Moreover, as Butler stated, parents who are educated are less likely to hire a ‘hyena’ for their daughters.

Our ‘Ulemu’ Project in Malawi was set up to address this issue. ‘Ulemu’ means ‘dignity’ in the Chichewa language and the project provides information and counselling on menstrual health and hygiene as well as providing girls with sanitary products so they can continue to go to school during their period. Currently it is possible for a girl to lose up to a quarter of school time if they stay away from school during their period.

Importantly, the project unites parents and children – emphasising the importance of educating girls and keeping them safe from exploitative and potentially life-threatening rituals such as ‘sexual cleansing’. We work with ‘mother groups’, teaching them how to make and sell reusable menstrual pads and panties and encouraging them to think differently about harsh practices like this one.

We cannot let practices like sexual cleansing continue – it harms the community by abusing its women and girls. We also cannot let this issue disappear from our consciousness. Girls should be in school and should not be victims of sexual exploitation.

By sharing this article you will be helping to raise awareness of ‘sexual cleansing’ and the solution ACT is providing for girls in Malawi.

You can find out more about our Ulemu Project appeal by clicking here.

Take action now. Together we can make a difference.


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