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SAHRC calls for gender-neutral uniform options

The South African Human Rights Council (SAHRC) believes current uniform policies reinforce traditional gender norms that lead to discrimination and challenges for gender non-conforming and transgender learners, and therefore wants them rectified.

 The South African Human Rights Council (SAHRC) in the Eastern Cape is challenging current uniform policies which they believe reinforce traditional gender norms that lead to discrimination and challenges for gender non-conforming and transgender learners.

According to the latest media reports, the organisation has given National and Provincial Education Departments six months to “rectify” their uniform policies and guidelines to accommodate all learners, notably gender non-conforming students.

This follows the release, days earlier, of a comprehensive inquiry and report on the regulation of learners’ appearances and school uniforms, which was launched March 2023 in the Eastern Cape following a large scale of complaints of excessive regulation of pupils’ appearances and school uniforms in institutions of learning.

The Commission further stressed that the enforcement of gendered appearance policies in cases pertaining to school uniform or hairstyles “constitutes unfair discrimination, as it impairs human dignity, perpetuates stereotypes, and restricts learners’ rights to express their gender identity freely”.

All learners, it goes on to say, “must be allowed to wear any item of clothing that forms part of the approved school uniform regardless of their sex or gender identity.”

The inquiry also demands all departments to submit reports showing their compliance with stipulated recommendations within eight months.

According to a recent story published by IOL, the Eastern Cape Education Department spokesperson Malibongwe Mtima has acknowledged the report, stating: “The department is closely studying the recommendations with a view to ensure that all our policies and prescripts dealing with school uniform is not discriminatory to any learner.”

In an earlier interview with ENCA detailing wide-ranging issues contained in the inquiry, SAHRC’s Dr Eileen Carter said there’s been several news reports “of children being discriminated against allegedly for wearing cultural expressions like the isiphandla (animal skin wristband).  “We’re aware of the case of MEC v Pillay judgment in respect of their Hindu religion.” (note: the High Court declared null and void the decision prohibiting an Indian learner from wearing of a nose stud, which her mother had given as part of a Hindu coming-of-age tradition). 

Carted added: “We’re aware of cases where non-binary learners are forced to wear dresses or attire that stereotypically don’t align with their gender or identity. This has been coming for a while, and we’ve decided that there’re enough complaints that we received that we would have to launch a system investigation into in this respect.”

The commission found in its assessment, according to Carter said, that most of the uniform policies and precedents may not be relevant to the African context. The same sentiments are contained 2016 OUT report that found that 56% of surveyed LGBTIQ+ South Africans encountered discrimination related to their sexual orientation or gender identity during school hours.

Consequently, OUT, one of the stakeholders consulted in the inquiry, has welcomed the SAHRC report. “The SAHRC has now made it unambiguously clear that it’s time for South African schools to be inclusive of all learners, in line with our Constitution and the Equality Act which prohibit discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation,” Sibonelo Ncanana, OUT’s human rights coordinator said, adding: “To flourish in an educational setting, learners must feel secure and free to express their true selves. Institutionalised policies that serve no legitimate educational purpose and only restrict the right to education and dignity must end now.”

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