On the outskirts of a border village in Southern Malawi, stands a group of girls with an averted gaze. Some are younger than ten. They are already balancing on the finish line of childhood. There is a growing legal resistance against this type of summer camp. So when initiation camp ends, the remote huts will be burned to the ground.
“You must cleanse yourself of your childhood dust, or you will become diseased.”
The common cultural wisdom spouted from the mouths of middle-aged women, known as anamkungwi, or “key-leaders” at initiation camp.
“When you go back to your village, you should sleep with a man to cleanse your childhood thing.”
Last year, 10-year old Grace Mwase spoke to Beenish Ahmed about a cultural rite of passage that had largely remained a secret behind the eyes of those who experienced it. One out of two girls will be married before their 18th birthday and one in eight will be married before they turn 15. One in four will be a mother by their 18th birthday, according to the United Nations.
While promotion of premarital sex is certainly not universally practiced across Malawi, in certain Southern districts estranged from the capital, such as Mangochi or the Chiradzulu district, sexual initiation is practiced with a whisper. Here lies an inherent contradiction; premarital sex is encouraged as a rite of passage, while adolescent pregnancy is culturally ridiculed. To bridge the gap, child marriage is seen as a remedy.
At the initiation camps girls are taught chisamba, a dance that is supposed to teach an adolescent girl how to satisfy a man, which she is forced to perform naked in front of the entire community before being sent back to her village and told to cook, clean and have sex.
Kusasa Fumbi is seen as a critical cultural corridor in the transition to adulthood—those who do not participate are ostracized. In Kusasa Fumbi, girls who have begun their menstrual cycle are pressured to have sex with an older man. Men known as Hyenas or Fisi, are hired and travel between certain villages for this purpose. Hyenas have been known to spread HIV as they do not use protection. One in ten people in Malawi are HIV positive and the country has a soaring maternal mortality rate accounting for 16% of deaths from 15-49. When adolescents give birth they are at much higher risk for potentially fatal medical complications such as ruptured birth canals. Seven percent of girls have given birth by age 15, while 65 percent have given birth by 20.
But in intensely patriarchal communities, girls are not alone. Before being sent back to their villages and told to have sex, adolescent boys are sent to separate initiation camps where they receive circumcision, often by leaders without medical training. According to the Malawi Human Rights Commission, boys are occasionally forced to swallow “medicine” made with their foreskin.
While Hyenas, key-leaders and chiefs often receive payment; there is also an inherent economic incentive for parents raising their children in poverty. In Malawi, three out of four people live below the poverty line.When one of their daughters is married, the economic burden of caring for her is passed on to her husband and the family’s economic status rises. This burden is passed onto the daughter though, as in a culture that promotes female subordination, girls are often forced to drop out of school.