- Though this is not the first time in Ghana that children with dreadlocks have been told to cut them off to be permitted to attend school, it is the first such incident to have attracted this degree of attention.
Writte By Julia Selman Ayetey - Over the last week or so, many opinions have been expressed about Achimota School’s decision to prevent two Rastafarian high school students from attending classes due to their dreadlocks.
Though this is not the first time in Ghana that children with dreadlocks have been told to cut them off to be permitted to attend school, it is the first such incident to have attracted this degree of attention.
That many of us have willingly and respectfully engaged in dialogue and debate with those of opposing opinions - however unreasonable, outdated or illogical we think they may be - is demonstrative of an engaged citizenry.
However, whether one supports or opposes the decision taken by Achimota is relevant only insofar as public sentiment may be taken into account by legislators.
Given that Article 25(1) of the Constitution provides the right to equal educational opportunities and Article 28(4) explicitly states that children cannot be deprived of their education due only to their religious beliefs, the real crux of the matter is less about personal opinion regarding the appropriateness of particular hairstyles and more about what the law says, doesn’t say and how it may be interpreted.
The exclusion of the two boys from school can reasonably fall within the definition of ‘discrimination’ within the Constitution, which in Article 17(2) prohibits discrimination on certain grounds, including religion, creed and social status. Discrimination is permissible in some circumstances, however, none of the stipulated exceptions appears to be relevant. Further, the Children’s Act 1998 prohibits discrimination against children on several grounds, including custom and prohibits depriving children access to education.
Any assertion that Rastafarianism must be a “recognised” religion in Ghana is a non-starter. Article 26(1) of the Constitution gives everyone the right to practice any religion, culture or tradition subject only to the provisions of the Constitution. There is nothing in the Constitution that forbids the wearing of dreadlocks or denial of education based on dreadlocks.
The longer this dispute continues, the more psychological and emotional harm that may be done to the young people involved - potentially raising another human rights issue. It is important to highlight that the law asserts that the best interests of the child “shall be the primary consideration by any court, person, institution or other body in any matter concerned with a child”.
Further, the right to dignity, as stated in Article 15(1) of the Constitution is characterised as “inviolable” - meaning it cannot be violated. Being prevented from attending school due to hairstyle and/or religion may be reasonably classified as degrading treatment or punishment and an infringement of the right to dignity.
It is indeed necessary for institutions, including schools, to have rules and regulations to govern their day-to-day operations. However, these rules and regulations must be in accordance with law.
Even if Achimota’s stance is deemed not to be in violation of any laws, institutional rules and regulations which have an actual or perceived discriminatory effect on the education of children should be evidenced-based and not premised on personal opinions about what are acceptable social norms. In other words, there should be a legitimate and objective justification for the discrimination.
There is no indication that the school has made reference to any studies or data which reliably demonstrates that the wearing of dreadlocks negatively impacts the capacity to learn or student behaviour.