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Policy or Constitution? Malawi’s religion, education clash

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MASINGA —Our children are being oppressed

For learners of the Rastafarian faith, there is one element about their future which they believe is not being given adequate attention. THOMAS KACHERE writes.

A September 20, 2018 message from the Ministry of Education that directed that all head teachers in secondary schools should allow children with dreadlocks to attend classes thrilled members of the Rastafarian faith, who are largely identified by such hair styles.

But for dreadlocked learners in some schools, the directive brought nothing but false hopes about a right they had hoped would be invidiously guarded by authorities.

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The sense of fading optimism somehow rose again early this year when the High Court ordered a public school to enrol back a learner it had rejected because she had dreadlocks.

Makeda Mbewe, a learner at Blantyre Girls Primary School, through her lawyer Chikondi Chijozi, had implored the court to direct that her religious affiliation should be respected in line with the Bill of Rights.

Rastafarians argue that dreadlocks are a component of their religion and that banning learners from school due to the hairstyle violates their rights to education and freedom of worship, which are guaranteed in Malawi’s constitution.

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That is why Morgan Masinga, a Standard Four learner at Madalitso Private Secondary School in Blantyre, is shocked that, up to now, he cannot be admitted at a public school because he has dreadlocks.

His father, also a Rastafarian, says he is forced to take his children to a private school, which is a bit expensive because public schools have rejected them.

“In our religion, we have commitments we have to fulfil. I know that we have freedom of worship but I don’t understand why our children cannot access public-school education.

“We are appealing to the Ministry of Education to consider us because our children are being oppressed in this country,” Masinga says.

Chijozi, who is a human rights lawyer with Southern Africa Litigation Centre (Salc), says denying children with dreadlocks their right to education is a rights violation which should not be allowed to persist.

She says it is surprising that this is happening when, in September, 2018, the Ministry of Education directed that such children should not be chased from classes.

According to Chijozi, the notice also outlined that children with dreadlocks should properly take care of their hair before entering classes.

“Since that directive was made in 2018, we haven’t seen much improvement because we are still receiving reports that public schools are refusing to admit children of the Rastafarian faith. That is clearly a human rights violation,” Chijozi says.

The lawyer, who is also Deputy Director for Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa), says they have received complaints from the Rastafarian community bordering on the infringement of their right to education.

“Almost 80 percent of children of the Rastafarian faith complained that they are denied admission into government schools. Even though the court granted an injunction preventing Blantyre Girls Primary School from keeping away Makeda, learners like her still struggle because the order only applied to that particular case,” Chijozi says.

She further argues that the policy that all learners should trim their hair is unreasonable and discriminatory as far as Rastafarian children are concerned as they keep their dreadlocks as part of their religious beliefs.

But still there is some push from legal experts who argue that while rights can have limits, there is no proper reason to ban the wearing of dreadlocks.

One such expert is Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional law lecturer at Chancellor College.

“Our Constitution guarantees various rights including the right to freedom of worship as well as the right to equal treatment. Now the only time you can limit those rights is if somehow the exercise of the rights harms the rights of others. In the case of Rastafarian children, I cannot see how allowing them to keep hair in dreadlocks harms anyone at all,” Kanyongolo says.

Ministry of Education authorities have argued that denying dreadlocked children access to classrooms is in line with the education policy, which aims to encourage uniformity among students.

But, according to Kanyongolo, that policy does not repudiate provisions in the Constitution.

“If it is against their policy, then the policy should be modernised to be in line with the Constitution because the Constitution itself is the supreme law of the land and, therefore, you cannot use a policy to defend yourself against the Constitution,” Kanyongolo states.

Chairperson of Human Rights Consultative Committee, Robert Mkwezalamba, also says it is surprising that “Rasta children” continue being denied access to public schools despite that the issue has been discussed on a number of occasions, with government agreeing to allow the children in its schools.

“No individual or institution should tramp on the right to education. Public schools should be the first institutions to support such a right. They should not be at the forefront discriminating against anyone because of their religious affiliation,” Mkwezalamba says.

He has since implored authorities to punish school administrators who are blocking ‘Rasta children’ from accessing education in public schools.

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