Blantyre - An HIV-positive Malawian man who claimed to have had sex with more than 100 women and girls is attracting sympathy from several quarters.
The sympathisers, who includ some journalists and chiefs, have called for the immediate release of Eric Aniva.
Aniva’s sexual conquests came to light in Malawi when a local television station, Times and later BBC interviewed him.
In both instances, he admitted that he was a paid sex worker. known as a "hyena".
"I provide sexual cleansing services. For instance, if a man dies, his wife is required by tradition to sleep with a hyena before she can bury him. If a woman has an abortion, again sexual cleansing is required," said Aniva.
He also revealed that teenage girls were "sexually cleansed" after their first menstruation to mark their passage from childhood to womanhood.
According to culture, it was said that if the girls refused, some mysterious disease or fatal misfortune could befall their families, or the village as a whole.
'Treating the symptoms rather than the disease'
Jose Safarao, a columnist for a local newspaper recently argued that arresting Aniva was wrong and unjustified, branding him as a victim of cultural circumstances.
"Arresting Aniva is like treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Aniva did not go looking for widows and adolescents to sleep with. They hired him; 'they', meaning custodians of culture in his community. They even paid him to do it. Arresting Aniva will not stop the 'hyena' culture," he argued.
According to Safarao, custodians of the culture would continue to secretly hire 'hyenas' and make them vow never to talk to the media.
"Deal with the culture. Aniva just happens to be a small actor in the scheme of things, and his arrest is of no consequence," he observed in his column published in The Sunday Times of Malawi.
He added: "Arrest custodians of the culture. Arrest the parents who accepted that Aniva should sleep with their children. Arrest whole villages, if not the entire tribe, which, in a way, means arrest no one."
The columnist argued that if the law said the "hyena" culture was banned, everyone would begin to understand that it was an illegal thing to do, and, short of that, Aniva was a scapegoat.”
Commenting on the same issue, the editor of The Daily Times, Innocent Chitosi, said that many Malawians were aware of the risky traditions being practised in their areas and hence it was wrong to have one sacrificial lamb.
"It is totally inhumane for Malawi to deliver Aniva to the firing squad. If anything, we have to round up political and religious leaders, as well as all the chiefs of the district. These are all accomplice to the crimes that Aniva, the hyena, has been committing," he wrote in his column Pick & Choose.
'Bondage of rear'
He added: "But all Malawians have been aware about the risky cultural practices, not only in Nsanje but also in the other districts. As such, President Mutharika should lead all of us into jail because we are part of this crime. If this sounds absurd, then arresting Aniva on such crime is utter nonsense."
According to Chitosi, what Malawi needed was the intensification of behavioural change advocacy.
"We need to demystify issues of miscarriage, still births and the like. Our people must be redeemed from that bondage of fear."
Traditional leaders also joined those calling for the release of Aniva, who was now being referred to as "Malawi’s hyena man".
"The case is being blown out of proportion. Some forces have declared total war on the culture of the Shire Valley," said Foster Tchale, spokesperson of Chief Malemia of southern Malawi’s district of Nsanje.
Aniva’s second wife, 24-year-old Funny, also demanded the immediate release of her husband.
She said the arrest which came after the order from Malawi President Peter Mutharika had greatly affected the family.
'How can they arrest him for an old story?'
According to Funny, Aniva had stopped conducting "sexual cleansing" a long time ago.
"How can they arrest him for an old story?" she asked.
Funny said the arrest had a huge negative impact on the family which was struggling to get food, with the breadwinner in custody.
"My fellow villagers are also ridiculing me, with some saying since my husband is a hyena, I am also a female hyena. Just imagine, I am being given different names, yet I have not committed any crime," she said.
Much as Aniva had sympathisers, human rights groups wanted him prosecuted for abusing girls and women in the name of culture.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in a statement has lauded Mutharika for his swift response to the issue.
UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said Mutharika’s bold move demonstrated a strong commitment to the protection of rights of women and girls.
"It is commendable that the government of Malawi has taken a strong stance against harmful traditional practices, particularly on early child marriage and sexual initiation for girls, and that legislation is being put into effect," she said in a statement.