Innocencia Mpinda is a bright 18-year-old with a radiant smile. She was born with HIV in the district of Zomba, Malawi, and learned of her HIV-positive status at the age of 14. Having lost both parents, Innocencia was raised by her grandparents. When Innocencia’s grandfather found out that she was HIV-positive, in addition to the painful stigma he inflicted upon her, he said he could cure her of the disease by having sex with her. She considered running away.
Innocencia was spared by moving in with her great aunt. “I feel safe now….now. I’m strong because I know what people do,” she said.
Bridget Chetama is the social work coordinator at Tikondane Care for Children In and Off the Street, faith-based organization that operates a transit shelter for children living on the streets of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The name Tikondane, meaning “let us love each other” in Chichewa, was chosen by the first group of children at the shelter. Chetama recalls a similar story of a young girl who did run away from an abusive situation, but not before contracting HIV:
Cynthia (not her real name) was 10 years old when she was found by a Tikondane social worker during an "outreach night" when workers go to the street to offer assistance to children. The little girl had only been on the street two nights. Since she had blood on her dress, she was taken immediately for a medical evaluation. The initial HIV test came back negative. However, when they brought her back for a re-test, the test returned positive.
Cynthia lived with her biological mother and HIV-positive stepfather. Her stepfather would buy gifts for the little girl and then send the mother out to farm the land so that he was alone with the child. Over the three-month period prior to her running away, he raped her repeatedly. According to Chetama, he clung to the traditional belief that sex with a virgin will cure HIV, also known as the “virgin cleansing myth.”
The stories of Innocencia and Cynthia highlight the detrimental effects of traditional beliefs about HIV that persist in Malawi. Other traditional customs outlined in a detailed 2006 study by the Malawian Human Rights Commission have been blamed for putting girls at risk of contracting the disease. In some parts of the country, including in southern areas dominated by the Yao or Lomwe tribes, a girl participates in secretive initiation ceremonies when she comes of age:
The kusasa fumbi roughly translates to “shedding off the dust” of childhood by having sex with a man. In some instances, an older man known as a fisi, or 'hyena', will come to sleep with the girl in the middle of the night. The fisi may have unprotected sex with multiple young women, potentially fueling the spread of HIV in an area of the country where up to 14 percent of the population may be HIV-positive. According to Clara Banya, a member of the Coalition of Women Living with HIV (COWLHA), “Malawi is rich in culture,” but a fisi can “sleep with 100 girls in the name of culture.”
Tradition is vital to Malawian culture. Although vilified and often seen as immutable, tradition may be the linchpin in bringing about change in HIV among adolescent girls. Traditional authorities work with the local government and are hugely influential in their communities. As Bridget Chetama from Tikondane notes, “We should use the leaders.”
The Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) recognizes this and has worked closely with one trailblazing traditional leader over the past decade. Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto from Dedza District has taken on the advancement of girls in her area by passing radical bylaws and changing the standards within her community. Over the past three years, Chief Kachindamoto has annulled nearly 850 child marriages and has worked with parents to ensure girls go to school.
According to UNICEF, girls with no education are twice as likely to acquire HIV as compared to girls with at least six years of schooling.
As Innocencia says, it’s “harder for girls in the community” but a lot depends on what she calls, “the culture of the community.” Innocencia now worries about her 11-year-old sister: “I don’t want her to be taken advantage of.”
Gabriel Mateyu, district program manager from Dignitas, the organization that supports Tisungane teen club for HIV positive youth, explains, “Tradition is very important. It’s a part of life. You have to know the good part from the bad part of tradition, and strengthen the good part.”