Amid reports of discrimination against transgender and non-binary school pupils, activists are calling for national non-discriminatory uniform guidelines.
The recent reopening of schools saw a furore erupt on a Western Cape school social media group over a “boy wearing a dress”, highlighting the lack of consistent and constitutionally appropriate policies on the issue.
While South Africa’s constitution affirms the equal rights of citizens when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, some school governing bodies continue to enforce ad hoc discriminatory policies, often with the support of parents.
In July last year, a 16-year-old transgender Strand High School student, who refused to wear a dress, was barred from wearing the grey trousers worn by boys in the school.
In October, pop star-turned-preacher Heinz Winckler was accused of heading a group of parents questioning a Somerset West school’s decision to embrace a transgender pupil’s gender identity.
While the Western Cape Education Department has promised to finalise its long-awaited Guidelines on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Public Schools, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) says that trans-affirming uniform guidelines must be implemented on a national basis.
“Homophobia in South African schools can no longer be tolerated and ignored,” said the CGE in a statement, noting that “occurrences of homophobic bullying are rampant in South African schools…”
A 2016 report by OUT LGBT Well-being, found that 56% of LGBT South Africans surveyed said they’d experienced discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity while attending school.
The commission called on the Department of Basic Education to “employ a non-discrimination principle in its National Guidelines on School Uniforms.”
According to CGE Spokesperson Javu Baloyi, “The existing Draft National Guidelines on School Uniforms do not address this issue adequately.”
Baloyi asserted that “Unfortunately, the existing draft guidelines continue to reinforce sexist and discriminatory separation of ‘girls and boys’ leaving little room for LGBTI students being able to wear uniforms that fit with their gender expression.”
Although the guidelines state that school uniform practices cannot “impede access to education in any manner” or “infringe any constitutional rights of persons,” it makes no reference at all to accommodating transgender or non-binary school pupils.
Speaking to the Cape Argus, Triangle Project research, advocacy and policy manager Estian Smit said that “Boys should be allowed to wear a dress as part of their school uniform.”
Smit argued that “Schools need to adopt dress codes that allow for gender-neutral uniforms and creative combinations of clothing items, which any learner should be able to wear regardless of their gender identity or sex. Not doing so, constitute human rights violations.”
Baloyi said that the CGE will be following up with relevant stakeholders “to ensure that a finalised National guideline on School Uniforms is expedited [so that] LGBTI students are protected from further gender discrimination.”
Baloyi added: “The Commission for Gender Equality calls upon the Department of Basic Education to redraft the existing guidelines to accord with the rights to human dignity, the right to education [and] freedom of expression.”