LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An HIV-positive Malawian man has been jailed for two years with hard labor after claiming families paid him to have sex with more than 100 women and girls, sparking outrage among women’s rights activists who want the sentence reviewed.
Eric Aniva admitted to British broadcaster the BBC in July that he had not disclosed his HIV status before he had sex with more than 100 young girls and women.
In Malawi, men known as “hyenas” are sent by village elders to have sex with girls as young as nine to “clean out the dust” of childhood and prepare them for marriage and also with new widows to rid them of their husband’s spirit.
The sexual initiation ritual is one of several traditional practices that campaigners against child marriage are trying to eradicate in the southern African nation where half of girls are wed before they reach 18.
In 2015, Malawi raised the legal marrying age from 15 to 18 which activists hoped would end early sexual initiations.
Women’s rights groups expressed outrage over Aniva’s sentence, calling it too lenient and saying it would not deter would-be offenders.
“This is a disgrace and a big letdown to the women and girls of Malawi,” said Emma Kaliya, executive director of the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre, in a statement.
“The courts of justice must revoke and reconsider this sentence.”
Aniva was arrested in July after Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika condemned him for committing “evil acts”.
His case was the first to be tried under Malawi’s Gender Equality Act for having sex with new widows.
Traditional cleansing rituals are intended to rid a widow of her husband’s spirit. In some communities widows are forced to have sex with a stranger, in others they have to clean their husband’s corpse and then drink the water.
Widow inheritance, cleansing rites and the eviction of women from their homes are fuelling the transmission of HIV across the continent, experts say.
Anber Raz, deputy director of Donor Direct Action, an international women’s rights organization, said at least Aniva was held accountable but added two years of hard labor seemed minimal compared to the violence he inflicted on women.
“Women around the world continue to endure extreme violence while perpetrators either get minimal sentences or evade justice completely. Governments seem very reluctant to deal with this issue effectively,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Families from Aniva’s home district, however, were disappointed that he had been jailed, according to journalist Lameck Masina who was in court when the sentence was pronounced.
“The people from (Aniva’s) district are saying that it is a violation of their culture and vowed to continue with the practice even though it is in conflict with the law,” he said.
Reporting by Zoe Tabary; Additional reporting by Joel Chirwa and Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith