School uniform policies infringe on learners’ right to dignity, SAHRC finds

School uniform shop. Picture : Simone Kley

School uniform shop. Picture : Simone Kley

Published Mar 7, 2024


Cape Town - From hair policies to a strict underwear dress code for girls, to enforcing obligatory school uniform rules - these are some of the issues that the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found to infringe on a learner's right to dignity and that could lead to a lack of access to education for some pupils.

The SAHRC tabled a report on its investigation into school uniforms before the portfolio committee on basic education after noting an increase in reports of alleged over-regulation of school uniforms and the appearance of learners.

In its report, the commission found that there was no legitimate purpose for regulating hair length, applying different standards to male and female learners, disallowing natural hair, enforcing gender-stereotypical uniforms, regulating the colour of girls’ hair and underwear, and treating appearance and uniform violations as disciplinary issues.

“The regulation of girls' underwear invades girls' privacy and dignity, as there is no way to enforce it without grossly violating their rights. Notably, there are no references to policies or codes that prescribe boys underwear,” said the SAHRC.

The commission found that enforcing binary school uniform policies could be seen as enforcing traditional gender roles and norms, as uniforms often had different dress codes for boys and girls, potentially violating Section 9 of the Constitution and Section 9 of the Equality Act.

It said: “The enforcement of gendered school uniforms constitutes unfair discrimination, as it impairs human dignity, perpetuates stereotypes, and restricts learners' rights to express their gender identity freely.”

The report received a mixed reaction from the portfolio committee and education advocacy groups.

Pila-sande Mkuzo, a junior attorney at the Equal Education Legal Centre, like the SAHRC, is concerned that, too often, school code of conduct rules and other practices around school uniforms, hair, and other aspects of a learner's appearance are used as tools of discrimination and exclusion.

“This is part of a wider trend that we see in our walk-in advice clinic. We are often approached by parents and learners seeking legal assistance in instances where learners are unfairly suspended, expelled, and sanctioned, in violation of their rights to a basic education,” said Mkuzo.

Mzuko said what the SAHRC’s report had done was to bring to light the pressing need for national guidelines and policies regarding school codes of conduct.

“The finalisation of the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity Expression, and Sex Characteristics Guidelines is long overdue and essential to ensuring the protection of all learners.”

Although the report was welcomed by the committee chairperson, the committee did not support the deadline set by the SAHRC for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to comply with its recommendations.

“We note that some of the findings, like the one pertaining to the price of uniforms, are not within the mandate of the DBE to regulate.”

In its recommendation, the commission said the DBE should conduct a baseline assessment to determine a cap on the costs of basic school uniforms, considering socio-economic circumstances.

“Binding directives may be issued, emphasising that expensive items like blazers are not compulsory.”

The SAHRC informed the committee that their inquiry uncovered various issues with the overregulation of learners’ hair. These included the “two-finger” policy for black male learners as well as anxiety arising from disciplinary action taken against students with contentious hairstyles, including braids.

Complaints highlighted historical biases rooted in Eurocentric norms that stigmatised African hairstyles.

Referring to his school days, DA Basic Education spokesperson Baxolile Nodada said he was told to keep his hair at a certain length because of a policy of the school.

“But I think what we should be saying is that as long as a child is neat, it's as simple as that. We keep it that way. We must not dictate what hairstyles people should be having,” said Nodada.

“It's very important for us to understand that we live in a South African context. We don't live in the United States. We don't live in Argentina; we live in a society that is diverse, one that has too many socio-economic challenges.

“And it's important for us to always make sure that we don't contribute to the psychosocial behaviours that already exist in schools.”

Supporting the wearing of a uniform, Nodada said: “It's important for us to always be able to identify learners because they are obviously vulnerable and they can be massive targets for syndicates and criminals.

“So, in doing so, we need to always protect and respect the cultural diversity, the religious diversity, and other diversities that are protected within the Human Bill of Rights as well as the Constitution.”