Women in south Sudan have been targeted in a string of abusive attacks by police cracking down on Western clothes. Many of the attacks over the Christmas period were by newly graduated members of southern Sudan’s police force.
Thousands of new cadets have this month finished police training courses backed by the United Nations, coinciding with the first reports of abuse in the southern capital, Juba, often directed at women wearing shorts and miniskirts.
The north eastern African country is set to hold a referendum on January 9 over whether its mostly Christian south should become independent from the Muslim north which is ruled by the strict Islamic sharia law.
But foreign women have also been targeted by police. On Wednesday, an non-uniformed man ordered a German woman to go home because she was wearing a dress that he decided was too revealing. He said: “If I see you like that pass here again, I will take you,” she told the International Herald Tribune newspaper.
Over the Christmas weekend, Joseph Lubega and his wife were out shopping when a uniformed police officer slapped his wife across the face, he said. The officer slapped her again. Then a third time.
“The reason, he said, was the blouse,” said Mr Lubega, a motorcycle driver from Uganda working in the southern Sudanese capital. “It had an open back.”
Talking about the attacks, Information Minister Benjamin Marial said: “In southern Sudan, you can dress in anything, everyone is free.” He said that the attacks were unjustified and that the officers involved have been set right. “This is not the policy of the government of southern Sudan, and we have taken the preliminary measures,” he said. “Sometimes police get out of control. These were individuals.”
A southern Sudanese army officer said that the police had been told to ‘counsel’ women on their dress, and that the officers had “mistaken the advice they were given.”
“Police have arrested women and girls for their dress on many occasions,” said Human Rights Watch researcher, Jehanne Henry. She added that in the past, police commissioners had authorized arrests of people with “bad behaviour,” which also included men wearing low-slung jeans and dreadlocks. “Police have a lot of work to do to educate and train officers in the applicable laws,” Ms Henry said.
January’s referendum will be the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of fighting between north and south over religion, way of life and oil that killed two million people.