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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 18:35 GMT
Malawi mulls mini-skirt freedoms
President Muluzi
President Muluzi allowed freedom of expression for Malawians
The balance between freedom and tradition in Malawi - a country still adjusting to democracy - has been highlighted by a number of attacks on women in the country who wear mini-skirts.

A recent attempted rape on a Brazilian visitor to the country was the most serious of a series of verbal and physical assaults in the country on women who refuse to cover up areas of their body.

According to many, the problem has its root in Malawi's change from a tightly-controlled one-party state to a democracy in which rights are constitutionally enshrined.

"The challenge [in Malawi] is to strike a balance - how you can exercise freedom of rights vis--vis responsibilities," Robert Phiri of Malawi's Public Affairs Committee told BBC World Service's Africa Live! programme.

"You have, for example, sometimes when women put on mini-skirts - if they go to the main bus depot, it would be very difficult for these women to walk freely.

"They will be booed - they may be assaulted, or mocked.

"There is a big challenge in striking a balance."

Traditional attitudes

Malawi only became a democratic country in 1994, after 30 of rule under the iron fist of Hastings Banda.

During these years rights in Malawi were very restricted. Rights of association and trial were denied - as was the freedom of choice over dress.

Democracy is to blame - there is a difference between a culture and a system of government
James Obrenyah, Ghana/UK

But for some, the relaxation of Malawi's laws under democracy has gone too far.

"It is to do with attitudes of Malawians," Mr Phiri confirmed.

"The shift from one-party rule after 30 years - definitely it has been difficult."

Veronica Male, a woman from Lilongwe, said that it was important attitudes changed quickly.

"We don't have too much freedom - but there is a lack of it," she argued.

"We are coming from a one-party state, and people have the traditional values which we had in the past.

"Right now it's very difficult for girls and women to put on mini-skirts - they are booed, they are mobbed, they are assaulted."

She added that Malawian men felt that some of the freedoms that had been given went too far.

By refusing to cover up, a woman was failing to respect herself, they felt.

One man told Africa Live! that his view was that "if it is not for sale, do not put it on display".

But Kenyan Lorna Lee White, who has been working in Malawi, said she was stunned by the attitude.

"It seems that in Malawi they're insinuating that the responsibility lies with the women to restrict their freedom so that they don't tempt the men who can't control themselves," she said.

"It seems that perhaps the responsibility should lie on both parts - the men should also be responsible enough to realise that women showing parts of their body does not give them carte blanche to abuse them"


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