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A Brutal Sexual Assault Galvanizes Swazi Women

A group of about 20 conductors ripped the denim miniskirt from the girl's body, as well as her sleeveless top and underwear, witnesses said. The men assaulted her with their fingers and a scrub brush used to clean the ramshackle minibuses that serve as taxis throughout southern Africa.

A bystander ended the attack after about 15 minutes by wrapping the girl in a piece of cloth and putting her in a taxi that was driven to a police station, witnesses said. She was then taken to a hospital and treated for serious bleeding.

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)

The day the article appeared in the newspaper, Pungwayo recalled, she and other activists started making urgent phone calls to one another. Pungwayo also called the prime minister -- who is the brother of her ex-husband -- at home. He issued a statement condemning the attack.

The makeshift group of activists met in person two days later to organize the march, which they publicized by phone, fax and text messages from their cell phones. And two days after that, the women started marching toward the taxi depot. Organizers estimate their crowd exceeded 1,000, a number that included hundreds of female students led by their teachers from nearby schools.

"We're fed up. Enough is enough," said Doo Aphane of the Women's Legal Rights Initiative, another organizer of the march. "The powers that be have realized that women are angry."

But at the taxi depot, hundreds of drivers and conductors had what amounted to a counter-protest with placards of their own, including one that, according to one news report, threatened more attacks, saying, "We'll get them with our brushes."

Dozens of women, mostly vendors who sell fruit and vegetables by the taxi depot, joined in the protest -- on the side of the conductors. Together, they blocked the entrance to the depot, forcing the women's march to stay on an adjacent street, according to the reports.

There was more backlash elsewhere.

A member of Swaziland's Parliament, whose every action is subject to approval by the king, made a speech criticizing what the press here has dubbed the "miniskirt march."

"We are tired of this. There should be a law against public indecency which would ban the wearing of anything that would expose a woman's thighs, her navel and also the wearing of G-strings," Ernest Dlamini said to rounds of applause, according to the Times of Swaziland.

One day last week, the newspaper ran 19 letters about the miniskirt controversy, seven of which supported the taxi conductors or criticized the victim of their attack.

"It is public indecency to show your underwear!" read one. "This is what promotes immoral behavior in all age groups. HIV is real and you tell me how we are going to fight it?"

Pungwayo said the activists have scheduled another protest for Saturday. They are also preparing other actions, including civil lawsuits against the conductors and a boycott of taxis unless owners create a code of conduct and institute rigorous training for conductors and drivers.

But the bluster has died down among the conductors, whose friends and colleagues are suddenly facing the possibility of jail time.

Many interviewed at the depot maintained that the victim violated something quintessentially Swazi in wearing a miniskirt. But most agreed that the attack went too far.

"This thing," said 21-year-old taxi driver Mugabe Mabuza, "it would not happen today."

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