Kenya: Schoolgirls' Skirts Spark Controversy

"Why are you dressing a schoolgirl like a nun?" Kenyan Minister of Education Mutula Kilonzo posed this rhetorical question in a series of remarks sparking a national controversy last month. The minister was accused of diminishing moral standards by supporting students' desire to wear skirts of a certain length.

"These girls don't want to become nuns, these girls want to become Kenyan citizens. If you are a schoolgirl and you don't like your uniform, don't break someone's legs, just talk to me, and I will change the attitudes of the teachers and the parents," said Kilonzo.

Kilonzo's comments came days after Rwathia girls high school in Kenya's central region went on strike. They demanded they be permitted to wear their uniform skirts short, thus keeping up with modern fashion trends.

The girls had initially rejected a new uniform introduced by the school, complaining the hemlines were too long. The minister was sympathetic. Strong reactions came from parents, teachers and religious leaders who found the minister's liberal dressing policy unsavoury.

In a comical gesture, Kilonzo invited Kenyan media to a briefing during which he held up samples of schoolgirls' uniform skirts. He compared varying hemline lengths, while quoting sections of the Kenyan Constitution that supported his pronouncements.

Arousing others?

Although the students and administration eventually came to a compromise on a hemline acceptable to both parties, the topic has raised interesting issues - and not only in Kenya. Should schoolchildren wear uniforms at all? Should they be allowed to express themselves through what they wear? Does that affect discipline and the ability to learn?

Catholic priest Dominic Wamugunda said it is up to parents to comment on how their children dress, because they have the children's interest more at heart. He said "the minister has overstepped his mandate".

Nairobi schoolteacher Mary Buluku thinks allowing schoolgirls to wear bring their hemlines up would set a dangerous precedent.

"Let the girls complain about resources like books and libraries. Miniskirts will not improve grades," says Buluku. "Male teachers will be unable to teach, they will be distracted by those tiny skirts and get derailed into thinking about other things that may expose the girls to danger. No way, schoolgirls should never be allowed to wear miniskirts."

Sophy Ngele, a Nairobi resident, agrees. "Skirts should go below the knee. Girls have all along worn long skirts in school. The priority should be on learning, not looks."

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