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A Brutal Sexual Assault Galvanizes Swazi Women

Activists Behind Rare Protest March in Kingdom Link Men's Attitudes, World's Highest HIV Rate

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A20

MANZINI, Swaziland -- Gugu Pungwayo couldn't bear to read the newspaper article. She recalled that she glanced at the headline, then put the paper down. Picked it up again. Put it down. Again. And again.

An 18-year-old woman had been sexually assaulted last month, brutally and repeatedly, by a gang of young men who worked at the chaotic, fume-choked taxi depot a couple of blocks from Pungwayo's office. The reason the men gave for the attack: The young woman was wearing a miniskirt.

Pressed by her 18-year-old daughter, Gugu Pungwayo helped organize a protest at the taxi depot in Manzini, Swaziland, where another 18-year-old was assaulted for wearing a miniskirt. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

By the time Pungwayo finished reading the article in the Times of Swaziland, she was crying, she later recalled. Her daughter -- age 18 like the victim -- demanded: "Mama, what are you going to do about this?" Pungwayo said.

Over the next few weeks, Pungwayo answered that question by helping to organize the first-ever women's march in Swaziland, a mountain kingdom of 1.2 million people. She also successfully lobbied for police and other authorities to take action. Three men have been arrested, but the activists are pressing for dozens more to be charged.

Fueling the outrage of activists such as Pungwayo is their conviction that the traditional subjugation of women is one reason that Swaziland has an HIV infection rate of nearly 40 percent, the highest in the world. Their protests of the assault have initiated uncommonly passionate public debate over what it means to be Swazi in the age of AIDS.

"We are losing the battle against HIV if we sit and allow this," said Pungwayo, 40, a union activist with a bright smile and sleek tortoise-shell glasses. "It's not a matter of short skirts."

Swaziland, a tiny landlocked country surrounded almost entirely by South Africa, is ruled by sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III. Political parties have been illegal since 1973. Women are regarded as distinctly subordinate to men. Married women cannot own land in rural areas, for example. And each year the king selects a new bride at a ceremony featuring thousands of dancing, topless virgins.

Many women say they lack the power to refuse sexual advances, and if they request that a condom be used to protect against HIV, their husbands or boyfriends accuse them of being unfaithful. Sexual assaults, by both acquaintances and strangers, have also increased.

"Most of the time," said Gcebile Ndlovu of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, "it's up to the men to make the choices, as to the how, the when and the where."

The victim of the attack at the taxi depot here was from Mbabane, the capital, a quaintly formal town where full-length dresses and three-piece suits are common. Manzini, a city of 100,000, is the country's bustling industrial center, with factories that attract men and women from rugged mountain villages where traditional ways dominate. Young men from these areas run the taxi depot, which is little more than an oversize parking lot where hundreds of passengers are directed in and out of dozens of vehicles.

Several of the taxi conductors said that a grown woman should cover her legs. Anything less, they say, is un-Swazi.

"The proper girls, they don't put on miniskirts," said Njulo Mamba, 25, a taxi owner.

A conductor, 16-year-old Kati Tsela, said, "When they wear those short things, they want us to buy. They are advertising."

The men at the taxi depot traditionally have whistled and shouted at women wearing what they consider improper clothing. The attack last month started that way, according to witnesses.

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