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Showdown over rape in Swaziland

In the conservative African kingdom of Swaziland, bus conductors threatened Friday to rape women wearing miniskirts, sparking outrage and a showdown with women's groups.

Bus conductors in Swaziland vowed on Friday to assault and rape female passengers who wore miniskirts, sparking outrage among women’s groups in the conservative African kingdom.

The threat followed this week’s arrest of two conductors and a bus driver who were charged with indecently assaulting an 18-year-old high school student.

The student was attacked at a bus rank in Manzini, Swaziland’s commercial center, by a group of men who shouted at her for wearing a miniskirt, cut it off and then gang-raped her, witnesses told local media.

Dangerous showdown
About 1,000 women marched on the bus rank on Thursday to protest against the attack. They were met by bus crews carrying signs reading: “We’ll get them with our brushes”—a reference to the reported use of a brush handle in the rape.

“We will teach these women respect. We will fix them with our brush handles,” Simon Ndwandwe, a bus conductor from Manzini, said at the bus rank on Friday.

A bus conductor calling himself only Licandza said: “Women who wear miniskirts want to be raped, and we will give them what they want.”

The bus drivers banned miniskirts on buses earlier in the year, saying they were distracting and encouraging lustful thoughts.

Although there have been incidents of women having their clothes ripped off at the bus rank, this was the first reported case of rape. There have been no reports of similar attacks on women at other bus ranks in the kingdom.

Fighting back
“This is madness. This has no place in modern society,” said Nomhlanhla Dlamini, director of a local NGO, the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse.

Dlamini said three women had since come forward to her group to report being raped at the bus rank earlier this year.

“We are talking to the bus owners. We want them to make a code of conduct. We are urging the Road Transportation Board to revoke the operating licenses of the involved buses,” she said.

The kingdom does not have a state transport system and relies on privately owned minibus taxis to fill the gap.

Police, who were criticized by the student’s grandmother for being slow to arrive on the scene, said they would be vigilant in case of a repeat of the incident.

“No one has a right to harass anyone because of what the person is wearing,” Superintendent Vusie Masuku said.

Swazi women generally wear modern Western clothing and have worn miniskirts since the 1960s, although the government at one stage considered banning them on moral grounds.

Some tribal chiefs, however, do ban women wearing miniskirts in their traditional areas.

Systemic discrimination
The governor of the royal village Ludzidzini, the most powerful traditional figure in the kingdom, has stopped women from wearing trousers in the village and at the royal palaces.

Speakers at Thursday’s protest said the attack was symptomatic of a society that discriminated against women.

“There is a connection between customs that say we cannot own property or be parties to legal contracts, and bus conductors who want to dominate us by telling us what to wear,” said one speaker.

The government said it condemned the crime.

“What the young woman was subjected to could be tantamount to murder, as the health status of the perpetrators is not known,” Prime Minister Themba Dlamini said.

Swaziland, a small country tucked between South Africa and Mozambique that is ruled by sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has one of the highest rates of AIDS in the world.