Debate on gender neutral uniforms

Published Jan 10, 2024


SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is seeking to make school uniforms affordable, including getting the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to control the procurement of school uniforms and to provide for the wearing of gender non-conforming outfits to accommodate diverse gender identities.

The commission has raised concerns that the cost of school uniforms can be prohibitive, leading to a lack of access to education for some pupils. This can be seen as a form of discrimination and a violation of their right to dignity.

The Competition Commission revealed that it had received regular complaints about the cost of school uniforms, saying the increasing costs are largely as a result of anti-competitive behaviour, where a school forces parents to procure uniforms from one supplier.

The Competition Commission said it had previously warned against anti-competitive behaviour in this sector and made recommendations that schools need to ensure that the uniforms are as generic as possible.

Dr Eileen Carter, provincial head of the SAHRC in the Eastern Cape said the country needs to go back to basics and look at whether school uniforms still fulfil the purpose they were intended for.

The Eastern Cape office of the SAHRC conducted a study in 2022 into the alleged excessive regulation of learners’ appearances and school uniforms.

She said questions around school uniforms are extremely important, and form the basis for the SAHRC tabling its report on school uniforms in Parliament.

“We hope to receive a date soon when we will be presenting this to the portfolio committee.”

The report noted: “Factors to include in this assessment should involve an evaluation of whether school uniform materials and items are contributing to accessing basic education or if a compulsory standard uniform that caters to the physical and socio-economic needs of pupils and their families is recommended based on current research. The DBE should make it clear that expensive clothing, such as blazers, is not compulsory.”

Speaking during a discussion on radio, Carter said: “It may be prudent for us to go back and ask what is the purpose of a 7-year-old child wearing a blazer in 42-degree heat in the Northern Cape. Do the parents have the capacity not only economically but at home to iron shirts during load shedding?”

Another factor that came to the fore in the inquiry was the issue of gender-neutral uniforms.

In their report, the SAHRC Eastern Cape revealed that school uniform and appearance policies often lack gender sensitivity and inclusivity, reinforcing traditional gender norms and presenting challenges for gender non-conforming and transgender students in expressing their identities.

The report recommended that all learners must be allowed to wear any item of clothing that forms part of the approved school uniform regardless of their sex or gender/gender identity and gender-neutral uniform options must be provided to accommodate gender-nonconforming learners.

Speaking about directives on uniforms, Matakanye Matakanya, the general secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies (SGBs), said they would not support such a move as it would render the existence of the school governing bodies moot.

He said school uniforms should not be used as a tool for discrimination when a child is being admitted to school.

“SGBs represent parents, therefore dress code policies must favour the constituency, which is parents. We do not want evergreen contracts in our schools. Parents must shop where they can afford, they must not be forced to buy from a particular supplier; if they are forced, they must report to us so we can report to the Competition Commission,” he said.

Vee Gani, of the KwaZulu-Natal Parents Association, said the key point in this matter was that school uniforms must be affordable.

“It is also important that schools do not arbitrarily change uniforms, forcing parents to buy new items and go into debt. For instance, if you have children in one school, the other child (in the lower grade) can wear the school uniform of the child in a higher grade, but if the school just changes the uniform, a parent has to procure a new uniform.”

Speaking on gender-non-conformity uniforms, he said school uniforms were the terrain of the school management and school governing bodies and they should have procedures in place to handle such matters with sensitivity and take into account the child’s rights.

Labby Ramrathan, a professor at the School of Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said he would support the proposal for the department to issue directives for school uniforms.

“It is becoming extremely expensive and it might lead to discriminatory attitudes among those who can afford and those who cannot afford expensive school uniforms.

“With respect to gender conformity, the choice should be left to the parents and pupils, perhaps the guidelines can assist the pupils, parents, and schools in making appropriate decisions. Gender-neutral uniforms would be one solution,” he said.