Malawi: Village chiefs unknowingly sleep with sex workers

Some chiefs in Rumphi district in northern Malawi risk contracting HIV because they unknowingly sleep with hired sex workers during chief installation ceremonies.

Some chiefs in Rumphi district in northern Malawi risk contracting HIV because they unknowingly sleep with hired sex workers during chief installation ceremonies.

According to the Lukari community based organisation (CBO), it’s the culture that a new chief is installed at night by a group of chiefs from other areas, and the host village is obliged to arrange for women to act as waitresses to serve the visiting chiefs.

Chimwemwe Mzumara, the CBO’s secretary, said that during the ceremony they dance, drink beer and dance all night and that some chiefs end up having sex with the waitresses. The waitresses feel unable to say no due to village bureaucracy.

Culture fuelling HIV

The host villagers usually hire sex workers, who may be living with HIV, from drinking joints to act as waitresses.  If there are seven chiefs coming for the ceremony, it means that seven women have to be employed for the night service because each chief needs his own waitress.

Mzumara said: “We pleaded with some village heads that chief installation ceremonies must be done during the day instead of at night in order to avoid creating an environment that is conducive to chiefs having sex with their waitress.

“But the village heads said that they were too junior to initiate the change and that it is only the traditional authorities who can order the change.”

Civic education

The CBO does not have the capacity to engage the authorities and other senior chiefs on the matter.

“Engaging them would require organising a formal meeting,” Mzumara said, “that would need financial resources among other things which we don’t have.  But we really need to convince them to either stop conducting the installation ceremonies at night or to start taking their wives to the ceremonies to act as waitress.”

When contacted for comment the sub-traditional authority Chisovya, in whose area the Lukari CBO is located, said: “Since it is a cultural ceremony, I can’t say whether it can be changed or not because first I need to consult my senior, Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe.”

He added that in light of HIV, he personally would not oppose the idea of conducting  ceremonies during the day instead of at night.

In Malawi, traditional authorities and chiefs are appointed under the local government Act.  As such, the minister of local government is the overall boss but the powers to hire and fire lie with the sitting state president of the republic.

Success story

Kanyelere CBO in the area of Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe in the same district can claim some success on this issue. Chairperson Wiseman Ngwira said they had managed to reach out to the chiefs in the area and convince them to stop holding the installation ceremonies at night.

“We managed to convince them because many chiefs realized that among them some were infected [with HIV].  Nowadays chiefs are installed during the day,” Ngwira said.

Village Headman Chilimwazi explained that the traditional leaders realised they had lost many people due to HIV and that the nocturnal ceremonies were leading to immorality.

“Young girls used to go to the ceremonies to sing choral songs.  But while there, they could sometimes sleep with men and contract diseases.  Even among the chief fraternity some are infected.  As I speak, there are some traditional leaders who are known to be living with the virus.

“Faced with that situation, we agreed that people must no longer spend the night at chief installation ceremonies.  We came to this resolution because we don’t want to continue losing our people,” said Chilimwazi.

Read more stories about HIV and wider development issues

Image: Members of the Market Theatre group practice in the grounds of the Family Planning Association of Malawi Dowa Clinic
© Nell freeman for International HIV/AIDS Alliance


  • comment-avatar
    Leela Binx 4 years

    It is unfortunate that the author of this post pitches sex workers as ‘vectors of disease’ and managing to turn the males in this article into the victims being at risk of contracting HIV when physiologically women are at greater risk of contracting HIV than men.

    It is a shame that the author of this article has managed to perpetuate stigma against sex workers as ‘diseased’ in order to make her point.

    • comment-avatar

      I respect your opinion. It is true that women are at greater risk of contracting HIV than men. The issue here is women are being abused as sex objects to chiefs who are superior in their communities. Because of the same abuse, communities hire commercial sex workers and people living with HIV to be sex machine as a short-term solution.
      The story says due to village bureaucracy nobody can say no. I wonder if condoms use is being done in such environment. In a situation that a chief and sex worker both are both HIV, the issue of re-infection still stands; so in my opinion stopping the malpractice is key.
      In order to address the root cause of HIV spread, the article also give a success case study of how communities within the district; refer to the quotation by a chief.

  • comment-avatar
    nisha 4 years

    you mean Chiefs cannot infect sex workers ? remember not all sex workers are HIV positive and not all the Chiefs are HIV negtv.

  • comment-avatar

    Nisha, you are absolutely right that not all sex workers are HIV positive and not all chiefs are HIV negative – however the story doesn’t imply that is the case. The opening of the story does refer to the fact sex workers are a group of people at higher risk of living with HIV. However, the final section of the story refers to the fact that some chiefs are living with HIV and therefore would be putting the girls they sleep with at risk of infection.