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Rastafarians demand education access

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WHERE ELSE DO THEY GO?—Children of Rastafarians

Every person has a right to education and the right is guaranteed regardless of one’s religious affiliation. But, as THOMAS KACHERE writes, the Rastafarian community has been struggling to enjoy the right to education, despite paying taxes to the government.

Education is one of citizens’ entitlements.

The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, in Section 25 subsections 1, 2 and 3, stipulates thus: “All persons are entitled to education. Primary education shall consist of at least five years of education. Private schools and other private institutions of higher learning shall be permissible, provided that— a. such schools or institutions are registered with a State department in accordance with the law; b. the standards maintained by such schools or institutions are not inferior to official standards in State schools.”

This notwithstanding, children of the Rastafarian community in Malawi claim that their right to education is being violated.

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They cite public schools as some of the institutions that are turning back children with long hair, and yet people there are employed by the same government that uses taxpayers’ money and claims to champion the right to education.

Rastafarianism is a religious and political movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s and has been adopted by many groups around the globe.

One of the things Rastafarians believe in is the keeping of dreadlocks, something public school authorities seem to abhor.

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According to Rasta Wisdom Mbewe, whose daughter Makeda learns at Blantyre Girls Primary School, dreadlocks are one of the elements in their religion.

“As such, forcing our children to cut off hair is a violation of their right.

“It pains me to see children who were supposed to be in class in government schools staying out of school on the ground that school authorities do not want to accept the children’s right to keep dreadlocks,” he said.

However, Rastafarians and their children are not taking things lying down.

For instance, Makeda Mbewe, a learner at Blantyre Girls Primary School, has, through a lawyer, implored the courts to direct that her religious affiliation be respected in schools, in tandem with the spirit of the framers of the Bill of Rights.

And her father, Wisdom, is in support of the move.

“In line with our beliefs, we do not comb or shave our hair.

“That is why we don’t understand why public schools have been hard on our children when the court issued an order compelling them to allow our children to have access to services in public schools.

Of course, a few school officials understand us but many of them turn their backs on us,” Mbewe said.

Ali Nansolo, of Chinkungwati Village in Zomba District, shares Mbewe’s sentiments.

He said he is one of the people who feel that his children’s right to education is being violated by officials in public schools.

“We have tried all means, to no avail. School authorities often cite policies as an excuse for denying our children their right to education. We don’t understand why they talk about freedom of worship when our children are being denied access to education for simply following principles of their religious beliefs,” Nansolo said.

According to him, he reached the extent of going to court to obtain an injunction on the matter.

The High Court ordered, in that case, that the Ministry of Education should allow children of Rastafarians to have access to education services.

However, Morgan Masinga, a standard six learner at a private secondary school in Blantyre, is upset that, to this day, he cannot be admitted to a public school because he has dreadlocks.

Some legal experts argue that while rights can have limits, there is no proper ground for banning dreadlocks in public schools.

One of such people is Edge Kanyongolo.

“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 dreadlocks harms anyone at all,” Kanyongolo said.

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.

Human Rights Consultative Committee Chairperson Robert Mkwezalamba said public schools should be the first institutions to support children’s right to education.

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

Reports indicate that almost 80 percent of children of the Rastafarian faith complained that they are denied admission into government schools.

On January 14 2020, the High Court of Malawi sitting in Zomba granted an interlocutory injunction compelling the Minister of Education to allow all dreadlocked children of the Rastafarian faith to enroll in government schools pending the finalisation of the matter.

The order is in line with Malawi’s current Education Act, which provides that the Minister of Education has a duty to promote education for all people in Malawi, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or any other discriminatory characteristics.

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