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Rastafari Children Challenging Refusal of Admission to Malawi Government Schools

Zomba, 15 February 2023 – The High Court will, on Friday, 17 February 2023, hear an application for judicial review in which two Rastafari children are challenging the policy of the Ministry of Education that requires all learners to cut their hair before admission into government schools. Honourable Justice Ntaba sitting in Zomba District Registry, will determine the following questions:

• Whether the Ministry of Education’s policy requiring that the Applicants should cut their hair for them to be allowed into Malawi Government schools is unlawful and unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the right to religion, education, and the right not to be discriminated against based on religious affiliation as provided in the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi Sections 20, 25 and 33.

• Whether the Ministry of Education’s policy requiring that the Applicants should cut their hair for them to be allowed into Malawi Government schools is an unreasonable and unjustified limitation on the right to education as provided in sections 25 and 44 of the Constitution.

• Whether the Ministry of Education’s policy requiring that the Applicants should cut their hair for them to be allowed into Malawi Government secondary schools is contrary to sections 4 and 5 of the Education Act.

The Applicants were denied admission at Blantyre Girls Primary School and Malindi Secondary School because they refused to cut their dreadlocks. On 14 January 2020, the High Court of Malawi in Zomba granted an interlocutory injunction compelling the Minister of Education to allow all children of the Rastafari religion, who have dreadlocks, to enrol in Government Schools pending the final determination of the matter.

Dreadlocks are one of the most visible marks of the Rastafarian religion. Rastafarians claim that their dreadlocks originated from the same source as the Nazarite Vows, that note that “in accord with God, the Nazarite grows out their hair and makes sure ‘no razor comes upon his head’, as it says in Numbers 6:1”. Those who cut their hair or any part of their body are treated with disdain because they are perceived as having abandoned “their faith and culture. The most crucial purpose of dreadlocks for Rastafarians is aligned to the notion of divinity dwelling within them – symbolising a more spiritual self-declaration.

The Applicants Argument
The Applicants argue that the policy of the Ministry of Education is unlawful and unconstitutional as it violates their right to freedom of religion and education and not to be discriminated against on the ground of religious affiliation. The Applicants take the position that a policy is not justified if it restricts a practice of religious belief. Children do not abandon their constitutional rights when they enter the school and regain them when they leave, nor can the same rights be contracted away by signing admission letters in the name of education. The applicants argue that the policy unfairly discriminates against Rastafari children because it enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms of adornment at the expense of minority and historically excluded children. The policy burdens learners who cannot express themselves fully and must attend school in an environment that does not entirely accept them.

At the heart of the prohibition of unfair discrimination lies a recognition that the purpose of our new constitutional and democratic order is the establishment of a society in which all human beings will be accorded equal dignity and respect regardless of their membership in particular groups. Courts in Kenya and South Africa have found such a policy to amount to unfair discrimination based on religion. The policy further violates the constitutional rights to equality, dignity, education, and freedom of religion, opinion, expression, association, and culture.

The Applicants are being represented by Chikondi Chijozi of Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and the case is supported Women Lawyers Association of Malawi (WLA), the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice, and Assistance (CHREAA).

WLA, SALC and CHREAA are concerned by the great injustice and discrimination children of the Rastafari community face in government schools based on their beliefs and religion. This leaves them disadvantaged and out of school, infringing their inherent right to education.

For Queries contact: Chikondi Chijozi at +265 888 647847