The ritual itself is used in different circumstances, for widows for example, but also for young girls who have reached puberty. That's when parents force them to have sex with a paid 'hyena', as a part of "sexual cleansing".
The ritual is done after the first menstruation. A girl and her 'hyena' have sex over three days, which marks the passage from childhood to womanhood.
Teenage girls have no right to refuse the so-called cleansing.
"If not 'cleansed', a young girl is considered to be a public danger to the rest of the community because she has entered a 'cool stage', and sexually active people are considered to be hot. So there is a need to thus remove the coolness, and that's done through a special sexual act," Father Clause Boucher, a Catholic priest and anthropologist who's lived in Malawi for 50 year, told RFI.
"In the past, when a girl would reach puberty, she would usually already be engaged to someone, so she would be safe with her future husband, would then have sex with him, and that would end the 'cool stage', she would become normal by becoming sexually active, therefore, be of no danger to the rest of the community."
First step towards change
What's really strange with this particular man is the fact that he has been bragging about his actions, according to Father Boucher. Usually, he said, when this ritual is performed, it is kept really secret.
But this is likely to raise awareness about what is happening in remote regions in the country.
"Arresting people is not enough, because these are deep-rooted traditional cultural practices, that have existed since time immemorial. Malawi has adopted laws and policies to end this practice but I feel we're not doing enough on the ground. It's important to engage the communities, for them to understand that this practice isn't right, but also that it spreads HIV and AIDS among communities. If we just arrest one hyena, when there could be thousands out there, or if we threaten 'hyenas', I'm afraid this will go underground," Malawi human rights lawyer Chrispine Sibande told RFI.
"Because communities have reasons why they do these kinds of practices, and it's important to understand the reasons, to be able to stop all kinds of such practices. There's a need for reforms, but the initiative of ending the practice cannot come from outside communities."
Engage with communities
On the ground, there's a need to explain why this practice is an abuse.
Also, there are some regions in Malawi that do not practice it anymore, people have replaced the so-called 'sexual cleansing' with medicine. So technically, it can be overcome.
"We need comprehensive programs, where we can talk to communities, to make them understand that this is a practice of abuse. It has nothing to do with culture, it has nothing to do with any other entertainment, it is something abusive, and it is criminal and that has to be stopped," Emma Kaliya, the Chairwoman for the Gender Coordination Network that works on Human Rights issues in Malawi, told RFI
"The other important thing is that this is about education. It is about making sure that communities are informed. They should be able to know when to say no. So we need to put in place very comprehensive programs throughout the country."
There is a need for a holistic framework to address harmful cultural practices, and actors, including the church, NGOs and the government, who want to end sexual cleansing have already launched several campaigns against these practices.