Rastafarians in Malawi received a heavy reprieve on Tuesday after the High Court ordered public schools to start enrolling dreadlocked learners.
Chijozi: Rastafarianism is a religion just like any other and ought to be respected, given that the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of conscience, religion, belief Judge Zione Ntaba: Rastafarian students should be allowed to wear dreadlocks to school Rastafarian learners can wear dreadlocks
An injunction granted by Judge Zione Ntaba at the High Court in Zomba orders the Attorney General, Ministry of Education, Education Division Manager (South) and the Headmaster of Blantyre Girls Primary School to allow the applicant, Blantyre resident Makeda Mbewe, to enroll as a pupil at Blantyre Secondary School.
The order, which Nyasa Times has seen, further directs the respondents to offer make-up classes that the pupil has missed.
It further compels the Ministry of Education to allow all children of Rastafarian religion, who have dreadlocks, to enroll into government schools pending the final determination of the matter.
Makeda is an eight-year-old Standard 5 pupil at Blantyre Girls Primary School who was denied admission from Blantyre Girls Primary School for growing dreadlocks. The school had asked her to cut her hair.
Rastafarians in Malawi have been intensifying their push for the government to lift its ban on students attending school wearing dreadlocks. They argue it is unconstitutional to deny their children an education because of their religious practice, which calls for wearing their hair in that style.
Despite an absence of legislation on hair length or its appearance in Malawi, Rastafarians in Malawi have long been banned from wearing dreadlocks in public primary schools. They are usually told to remove the locks or risk being denied entry.
Rastas argue that dreadlocks are a component of their religion and the ban violates the students' right to education and freedom of worship - which are both enshrined in Malawi's constitution.
According to Makeda's lawyer Chikondi Chijozi, the Zomba High Court order means that Rasta children are now free to enroll to any government school of their choice.
Chijozi, deputy director at Centre for Human Rights Advice Assistance and Education (CHREAA), said the organisation received overwhelming complaints from the Rasta community on their infringement to the right to education.
"As an organisation, we received a number of complaints on the matter--almost 80 parents of Rastafarian children who complained that their children were denied admission into government schools.
"And even though the court granted an injunction on the matter in 2018, the parents were turned back because the order only applied to that one case. So, most of the parents had to take their children to private schools and some of them had to cut their dreadlocks while some of them were not even going to school," she said.
The human rights lawyer argues that the government policy demanding that all learners should trim their hair is unreasonable and discriminatory where Rastafarian children concerned as they keep their dreadlocks as part of their religious beliefs.
The Rastas' push has gained support from some legal experts.
Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer who lectures at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, says although rights can have limits, he sees no reason to ban wearing of dreadlocks.
"Our constitution guarantees various rights including the right to freedom of religion as well as a right to equal treatment. Now the only time you can limit those rights is if somehow the exercise of the rights harm 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," he said.
Ministry of Education authorities have argued that refusing dreadlocked children into classes is in line with education policy which aims to encourage uniformity among students.
Kanyongolo said that policy does not trump constitutional rights.
"If it is against their policy, then the policy should be modernized 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," he said.