Police in Swaziland have resurrected
a 1889 colonial criminal act banning "immoral” dressing to prevent women from putting on revealing clothes.The act’s revival came after, last month, women and girls, some wearing miniskirts, marched against rape and sought equal rights safety in a country where women are stil legally treated as minors
in many aspects and where two-thirds of teenage girls have been victims of sexual assault. The march, taking place in Manzini, Swaziland’s second largest city, was reportedly
blocked by the police.
Discussing the revived law, a police spokeswoman emphasized that the act of a rapist is made easy when women wear "skimpy clothes", because they are easily removable. She also claimed that the „skimpy clothes” brought unnecessary attention to these women and that, they were, therefore, responsible for assaults
or rapes committed against them. She further added that, while the 1889 had not been recently enforced, police wanted to inform women about its existence and make people note and embrace acceptable
dress conduct. Any woman arrested and found guilty could receive a fine of up to $10(£6) or serve jail time for up to six months.
The colonial criminal act however does not apply to traditional costumes worn by women during ceremonies like the annual
Reed Dance, when sub-Saharan Africa's only absolute monarch, King Mswati III, chooses a wife to join his current 13 wives. During the ceremony
, young topless virgins wear traditional skirts, which only cover the front and leave the back exposed, while underwear is not allowed. The police spokeswoman stressed that the tradition costume was acceptable
, because there were no records of women being raped while wearing the costume.
This is not the first law regulating women and girl’s dress code in Swaziland. In 2000, the government introduced a law requiring school girls above
the age of 10 to wear knee-length skirts, in an attempt to curb promiscuity and half the spread of HIV/AIDS, given that Swaziland currently has one of the highest infection rates in the world.
The government has recently denied that it will allow the police to implement this law and arrest women for their choice of clothes. The official spokesman
stressed that the Constitution protected the freedom and rights of women in the country such that no custom may be imposed on them in which they were in conscience opposed. He further added that the process of reviewing
laws in conflict with the Constitution is underway and that any law not in conformity with it shall be declared void.
Whether or not the 1889 law shall be annulled, the officially-expressed police position on the matter reveals the fact that this key state institution considers women responsible for being raped through their clothes and public conduct. As long as the police considers women to be the instigators of this type of abuse, not the victims, it is unlikely that it will make any efforts to enhance public safety measures to protect women from rape as well as provide adequate solutions in cases of rape. Instead, it will place the burden of protecting themselves in the public sphere on the women and shame them when they get raped for failing to act "appropriately” in society and attracting rape rather than punish those committing the crime.
That is why it is not enough for the Swazi government just to revoke outdated laws, like the 1889 criminal act, if it truly want to ensure that women’s Constitutional rights and freedoms are to be respected. One of the key steps that the government must take in order to achieve any positive changes in women’s situation in Swaziland is to reform the police’s perception of rape and women’s social rights. The government should simultaneously aim to change the general public’s perception that women can and should be treated like minors instead of equals to men. While these are long-term changes, in order for them to occur at all and prevent the country from becoming increasingly conservative on the matter of women's rights, adequate steps must be taken immediately.