Known as “kusasa fumbi” (“brushing off the dust”), to be interpreted as the shaking off an inexperience in sex by actually doing it, sexual cleansing is considered a rite of passage and a form of initiation of young girls into womanhood. It is practiced in parts of Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Ivory Coast and Congo.

Most villages in Malawi have an elderly woman, known as “nankungwi”, who is an expert in sexual and reproductive health issues. She is often a traditional birth attendant as well and acts as the chief counsellor to young initiates. She gives instruction and advice to initiates in preparation for their new experiences and roles, such as menstruation and marriage.

However, many girls are pushed past this basic level of instruction towards sexual cleansing when they are given the impression that without it they will suffer great misfortune or become diseased. Most submit and participate because it is an important part of their culture and their parents and community expect it of them. In fact, those who partake in the rites reportedly feel elevated above those who did not and they are encouraged to avoid associating with non-initiates.

“Everyone makes sure their child goes to the initiation ceremony because you will not be accepted in the community otherwise,” Jean Mweba, an education programme specialist for reproductive health and adolescent health at the United Nations Population Fund, told CNN. “It’s an issue of being accepted into the community.”

Once the young girls are able to understand the concept of sex, they are sent to “initiation ceremonies” or sex camps to complete the ritual.

Girls as young as six are taught that they must have sex in order to get rid of “child dust”.

According to an article published by the BBC, “In some remote southern regions of Malawi, it is traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a paid sex worker, known as a ‘hyena’, once they reach puberty. The act is not seen by village elders as rape, but as a form of ritual cleansing.”

In the camps, men (often sex workers) are hired to finish the rite by having sex with these young girls. What is even more horrifying is that the “hyena” is forbidden from wearing a condom or any other form of protection as it is against the rules of the ritual, which reportedly lasts three days.

Read: Malawi: Superstition driving the rate of sexual offences up, police say

Joyce Mkandawire, communications advisor for the Girls Empowerment Network, said in an interview with The Daily Mail that many girls are not given a choice and sometimes the adult men known as hyenas are hired by the girl’s own parents.

“A hyena moves at night. Likewise, this hyena man comes at night into the girl’s bedroom,” Mkandawire said. “The girl doesn’t even know who the ‘hyena’ is who is coming to have sex with her.”

Alinane Kamlongera, the author of What becomes of ‘her’? A look at the Malawian Fisi culture and its effects on young girls, says, “The Fisi (sexual cleansing) practice does not only serve the male appetite (in the case of a Fisi himself) but also that of the potential/future groom. The entire initiation process is based on teaching a girl how to please her potential suitor.”

Far-reaching consequences

The consequences of this practice are numerous and appalling. Girls have their childhood and education cut short as many are married off after undergoing the ritual. (Malawi rates 10th for the highest rate of child marriages in the world.) They also suffer from a traumatic initiation into sexual relationships and are put at risk of pregnancy and STIs.

Furthermore, the leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 and 19 years old in developing countries is childbirth and pregnancy-related complications, according to UNICEF. Malawi has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, 35% of which are teenagers. The younger the girls, the more they are at risk of pregnancy-related problems such as fistulas (a condition that results in leaking urine and feces), bleeding and other complications.

The leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 and 19 years old in developing countries is childbirth.

According to CNN, not all is lost. Malawi’s Ministry of Health has issued a cultural practices manual to eliminate “harmful cultural practices”. It also collaborated with local leaders and established outreach programmes to help keep children in school and to expand their access to health services.