Ugly scenes returned to LilongweÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Old Town on Tuesday and business came to a brief standstill as police and vendors clashed over womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dress code.
The vendors pounced on women in trousers or miniskirts, arguing they were not decently dressed. About six women were confirmed to have been attacked.
Police moved in quickly to contain the situation, but the vendors were clearly looking for a fight as they gathered near Lilongwe Mosque to block the entrance to Malangalanga Road with some pelting police officers with stones.
One of the women who was attacked as she disembarked from an Area 12 minibus told The Nation she had barely walked 15 metres from the minibus depot when she heard people whistling and jeering at her.
“Before I analysed what was happening, a young man selling plastic bags attacked me and pulled my T-shirt. Then the rest [of the vendors] came and started punching and pulling me in their directions. They touched me everywhere. I have never been so humiliated and degraded as these [people] did today,” said the woman who was crying and had to be rescued by another minibus crew.
Two girls were also attacked as they came from a college near Shoprite and Game shops, another near Tsoka Flea Market and three more along Malangalanga Road, according to witnesses.
Nobody explained the cause of the attacks, except unsubstantiated claims that some politician had earlier called girls in trousers as “zidole” (dolls).
Shop owners quickly closed their shops as thousands of young people gathered near the mosque and a few of them kept stoning the police who did not retaliate throughout the spectacle that eased at about 1 pm.
Central Region Police spokesperson John Namalenga said they got the report of the incident in the morning, but nobody was arrested as most of the incidents happened within a short time and the victims left immediately.
Minister of Gender, Child and Community DevelopmentÃ‚Â Reene Kachere described the attacks as “worse than rape”. She argued those attacking women are rapists who are using the dress code as justification for satisfying their lust.
Kachere said she will meet the victims, asking them to report to her office.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) chairperson John Kapito visited the Old Town and condemned the vendorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ behaviour. He said it is time to urgently address the economic frustrations which are taking Malawi into a state of lawlessness.
Said Kapito: “I am coming from there and it is a very sad development. Their motives are not at all related to issues that people are facing… This is the offspring of anger that people have. They are unemployed, struggling to survive, retrenched and fired. We need to do something about this urgently or very soon we will all be under attack.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Meanwhile, human rights activists who addressed a news conference on Tuesday night, said vendors are expressing their anger at wrong and weak people instead of authorities who have failed to provide solutions to their problems.
Dorothy Ngoma of the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives and Lucky Mbewe of the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education said women should boycott from buying from vendors for the next two weeks as a protest until the leadership of vendors apologises.
Two weeks ago, the Lilongwe vendors were also engaged in running battles with police and Lilongwe City Council rangers over trading spaces along the Malangalanga Road. Scores were arrested in the fracas,Ã‚Â but police failed to contain the situation and the Malawi Defence Force had to move in.