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January-02-01

Skirting the Issue

Last July, as the 13th International AIDS Conference drew to a close in Durban, South Africa, a lawmaker in neighboring Swaziland was proposing a way to halt the spread of AIDS in his country: ban miniskirts. This way, Senator Majahenkhaba Dlamini reportedly argued, men who are infected with HIV would be less likely to rape girls and infect them with the virus.

Women and girls make up more than half of the HIV-infected population in Swaziland. Females between the ages of 15 and 24 have almost twice the rate of HIV infection as their male peers. And many are infected through rape. According to a study by the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, men believe that girls are being abused because of "their good looks and their manner of dressing," an absurdity challenged by AIDS activists.

"The miniskirt ban is a result of the social construct of gender in Swaziland," says Sizakele Shongwe of the Fundza Centre, which creates school libraries that provide books on HIV/AIDS. "Men won't take responsibility for their bodies, so they're trying to control ours. What's really needed is information on how to prevent AIDS."

Meanwhile, students have mobilized against the proposed ban. "Young people are very angry," says Futhi Dlamini, who works at a youth center that offers HIV/AIDS counseling. "They're saying even the grandmothers who wear long skirts get raped." Feminist activist Doreen Mukwena, head of the Federation of Media Women in Zimbabwe, calls for protests. "Two years ago, girls here were being stripped of their miniskirts by men in the streets. We had a huge demonstration with women in miniskirts. Laws don't change perspectives but civic action does."

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