Women chatting while sitting on their bikes in a district of Maroua, northern Cameroon, Nov. 20, 2013.
Women chatting while sitting on their bikes in a district of Maroua, northern Cameroon, Nov. 20, 2013.
YAOUNDE - Cameroon is launching a vigorous campaign against indecent dressing by young girls in educational establishments, on television and in public offices.  The campaign has sparked a debate among citizens on the role of dress in society. 

The article in Cameroon's penal code that establishes what is considered decent attire was enacted in 1976.  Violators could be assessed fines of up to $5,000 and a maximum of two years in prison.

Until recently, the law had not been vigorously enforced.  That changed last week, when the government announced a new campaign against indecent dressing among girls.

Inappropriately dressed girls could be denied access to schools, churches and possibly face legal prosecution.

The issue has sparked a debate in recent months as the government has tried to stop girls from dressing in revealing attire.  And the opinions do not fall necessarily along typical, generational lines.

Claire Bunyuy, 40, a resident of Yaounde, argues that even at creation, God did not impose any dressing pattern.

“When God created Adam and Eve, did they have any clothing on them?  If you know you have a good body, let it be seen by people who want to see.  When you have a nice thing [body] and you cover it who will know that that thing [body] is nice?” she asked.

Nadege Ndi, a 16-year-old student in Yaounde, says the government should arrest people who dress indecently.

“I am fully in support of it because it is like it will reduce the level of prostitution in our country.  And if you dress decently, guys [boys] who want to see you will see you,” she said.

Others take a more cultural view.  Martina Ndi, 36, wearing short skirts, revealing tops and snuggly fitting jeans does not reflect traditional African society.

“When we were young girls, we were not wearing those things.  A decently dressed mother will not want to see her child [dressed] like that,” she said.

Many people believe the indecent dress campaign infringes on peoples' freedom of choice.   Marie-Therese Abena Ondoua, Cameroon's minister of women's empowerment and the family, who is piloting the campaign, disagrees.

“Rights have a limit and when you are going beyond those limits you are also abusing the other's rights.  Why are you forcing myself to see your naked body?  I think it is a phenomenon that we all should fight,” she said.

She added that the campaign has so far been successful even though there are some pockets of resistance.

“At times they will see a lady dressed almost naked, they will start clapping," she said. "It is not that they are happy because they see her dressed that way.  They are shocked, it is a way of manifesting their deception.  They are shocked that how can a lady expose herself in that manner.”

Churches were called upon to assist the government in the campaign.  Television broadcasters were also asked not to televise pictures that promote indecent dressing.

But some Cameroonian cultures, like those of the Toupouris in the north and the pygmies in the east, encourage women to put on dresses that expose certain parts of the body.  

Amma Tutu Muna, Cameroon's minister of culture, says such dresses are worn in particular places.

“What you wear has to be in a context," she said. "I say you can not wear a swim suit to a dinner party.  Now you are talking about pygmies who expose their bodies when they are dancing.  They have a culture, they have a tradition.  Are you going, you a normal person who lives in town behave as a pygmy?  The pygmy is allowed to behave in a certain context the way he is used to, so there is no clash, there is no problem with his own culture and his way of living.”

The war against indecent dressing is part of a national campaign against anti-social behavior.  The government says it targets girls to reduce incidents of rape although no statistics were given as to how many girls have been raped because they dressed indecently.

Critics have also asked why it does not also target boys who have copied Western forms of dressing and wear tight-fitting T-shirts and trousers pulled down to expose their buttocks.