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SDG5-Say NO to ‘sexual cleansing’ of African daughters on first menstruation

The practice of forcefully indulging a girl, who just attained puberty with the onset of menstrual bleeding, into sex in some parts of Malawi is considered a ‘pious’ or ‘sacred’ process through which she enters into adulthood or womanhood.

SDG5-Say NO to ‘sexual cleansing’ of African daughters on first menstruation
Anamkungwis hoax the young girls with fake vows of new experiences and pleasures and instruct them towards sexual cleansing with hyena men. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Severe painful and sometimes life-threatening practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) have accumulated a lot of global attention, uproar, condemnation, and protest, but there are some practices still existing in Africa, which are quite restricted to some communities or states. Due to this social confinement and secret way of practicing, it becomes quite tough to know or become well aware of those exploitations. One of those inhuman practices against the will of a person in the pretext of tradition is "sexual cleansing" or "kusasa fumbi".

What is sexual cleansing?

Sexual cleansing (aka kusasa fumbi) is a practice in some African countries in the pretext of tradition, in which a girl or woman is expected to have copulation with a stranger after attaining menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation), after becoming widowed or after having an abortion as a cleansing ritual. The practice of "kusasa fumbi" is sometimes performed by a selected future husband for a girl or in many cases by a paid sex worker. The name "kusasa fumbi" means "removing the dust" (or "brushing off the dust") which refers to a girl losing her virginity often without protection to become an adult. The practice is prevalent in parts of Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Uganda, Congo and Ivory Coast.

How 'hyena' men in Malawi fulfill their lust

The practice of forcefully indulging a girl, who just attained puberty with the onset of menstrual bleeding, into sex in some parts of Malawi is considered a 'pious' or 'sacred' process through which she enters into adulthood or womanhood. And the men who undergo sex in exchange for money with adolescent girls between the ages of 12–17 are called 'hyenas'. The rite, which is fervently believed to prevent disease, lasts for three days. Since this ritual against the will of young girls requires the exchange of sexual fluids, the use of condoms is totally prohibited.

The majority of villages and rural areas in Malawi (the practice is largely confined to Salima, Chikwawa, and Nsanje districts) have an elderly woman called "anamkungwi". These elderly women are believed to have expertise in sexual and reproductive health issues. Apart from their roles as traditional birth attendees, they also act as chief counselors to young initiates who undergo the insensitive practice of sexual cleansing. These women decoy young girls with fake vows of new experiences and pleasures and instruct them towards sexual cleansing with hyena men. According to the anamkungwi, without this so-called 'sacred process', the girls will suffer great misfortune or become diseased sooner than later. The young girls cannot resist themselves from having sexual intercourse with the hyena men as it is an important part of their culture (as the girls are believed to mandatorily learn how to satisfy partners at a young age) and their elders including the community expect the same from them. In truth, the parents who protect their girls from getting sexually exploited or the revolting girls are considered inferior in the community.

According to CNN's recent conversation with Jean Mweba, an education program specialist for reproductive health and adolescent health at the United Nations Population Fund, every person makes sure that their daughter goes to the initiation ceremony otherwise he, his family and his daughter will not be accepted in the community. Once the young girls are able to understand the concept of sex, they are sent to initiation ceremonies (which are called sex camps) to complete the ritual. The girls are being radicalized to have sex with a paid sex worker (aka hyena men) after attaining puberty and this act is not considered as rape or child abuse by the village elders, instead considered as a form of "removal of dust" in the name of "kusasa fumbi". The young girls in Malawi, where the practice is prevalent, are often told that their skin will dry and become brittle if they do not conclude the initiation.

Widows in Kenya become severe victims of sexual cleansing

In many parts of Kenya, widows are considered impure and tradition dictates that they should be cleansed of their husbands' demise. This process of sexual cleansing or widow cleansing is essential in many rural parts of Kenya in the name of chasing away the demons as the superstitious villagers believe that the women may have performed witchcraft against their husbands. The widows who resist undergoing sexual cleansing are highly being mocked, beaten up badly and chased down the road. The deceased husband's brother or other relative can do her cleansing by having sexual intercourse or she will have to go through the process with a stranger. In the morning, after sex, the widow burns her clothes and the man shaves her hair. The burning of clothes and shaving hair usually happen outside in front of the house so that the neighbors can witness the widow is now cleansed. At the completion of the ceremony, a chicken is being slaughtered for making food, which usually lasts from three to seven days.

Although widow cleansing was outlawed in Kenya in a 2015 domestic offenses bill, many villagers in several parts of Kenya secretly practice the process in the precise of tradition and culture. The perpetrators threaten the widows of facing disastrous future of their children if they do not undergo the cleansing process. After the cleansing, the widows are traditionally inherited, some get married to another man (generally their brothers-in-law) but millions are ostracised of their residences by their in-laws and made vulnerable to rape. Despite the announcement of an outlaw by the Kenyan government, the women who revolt or speak against the custom face death threats and are often attacked at any place.

Severe consequences of practicing sexual cleansing

Imposing of the sexual cleansing process to young girls between 12–17 is not only painful (due to under-developed genital organs), it plays a big role in increasing the number of HIV/AIDS in those African countries where it is practiced. The majority of hyena men transmit sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, but they never disclose their medical conditions out of sexual lust and appetite for money. President of Malawi, Peter Mutharika ordered the arrest of Eric Aniva after he called himself "one of the 10 hyenas" in his community in conversation with BBC radio in 2016. He also said that he was being paid to sleep with more than 100 young girls and women after their first menstruation in exchange of $4 to $7 each time. He also admitted to BBC that he did not mention his HIV status to those who hired him. After issuing an arrest warrant, Peter Mutharika was quoted saying, "This man was abusing children. He infringed their rights and I'm 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. He would further be investigated for exposing the young girls to contracting HIV and further be charged accordingly." But unfortunately, the practice is still prevalent and lots of hyenas are roaming in those societies and making the girls and women their victims.

Apart from the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, another severe consequence of sexual cleansing is unwanted or unexpected pregnancy the young girls suffer from as the use of condoms is strictly restricted due to the belief of exchanging sexual fluids. Furthermore, pregnancy and childbirth as a result of sexual cleansing are the leading cause of girls' death in these areas, the figure adds to the death of 2,87,000 females every year in the African continent due to complications in pregnancy and delivery. Malawi has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates and 35 percent of whom are teenagers. The young girls, who have not yet developed genital organs, severely suffer from pregnancy-related problems including the painful fistula, a disabling condition (that results in leaking urine and faeces) often caused by problems due to lack of proper treatment during childbirth.

What needs to be done

The African governments need to raise awareness through various mediums, often conduct campaigns and target the young girls, school-college goers, women and parents as their main audiences. The campaigns' theme(s) should be generated in such strategic ways that it leaves much impact in their minds and convince them about the violation of human and girls rights, gender equality, severe consequences of sexual cleansing in the name of tradition, complications during unexpected and early age pregnancy and death, chances of various sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS that lead to untimely death, apathy to sex life in future et al. The problems related to Kenyan widows should be addressed equally. The governments should propagate these severe impacts through various mediums like television, newspapers, radio, internet, etc.

Even the governments should outlaw kusasa fumbi as early as possible. Once it is outlawed and declared as "criminal offense", the police can easily put the perpetrators like hyenas and anamkungwis (elderly women discussed above) behind the bar.

The governments, on the other hand, must assist the national and international human rights institutions in every possible way so that they become fearless and are able to approach the people in their respective processes for creating awareness. There is a huge requirement to make communities realize that every woman has the inborn right to get education, work for her wellbeing, choose her husband, take decisions related to pregnancies, etc. The common people somehow need to be convinced that sexual cleansing and similar kind of practices in the name of ritual, tradition, and religion were earlier imposed by men to dictate and sexually exploit the women and all these are disastrous in nature.

There is an utmost requirement of the African governments to take above and other necessary steps in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5), which emphasizes on "gender equality". According to the United Nations General Assembly, "gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world." Set in 2015 with other issues addressed within the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the success of Agenda 2030, "women and girls, everywhere, must have equal rights and opportunity and be able to live free of violence and discrimination and gender equality requires urgent action to eliminate the many root causes of discrimination that still curtail women's rights in private and public spheres." There should be a huge contribution of the African governments in assisting the UN agencies and other NGOs who are giving their endeavors in eliminating crimes against women and uplifting their status in society.

Also Read: Why announce female genital mutilation in Africa a criminal offense

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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