By Duncan Mlanjira
Malawi Council of Churches Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC) has asked the government not to dictate to them on what to do following the statement from the Ministry of Education that said no child should be excluded from school for dressing according to their religious rights unless the type of dress offends public morality or school discipline.
The communique from the Ministry’s Secretary for Education, Science and Technology, Justin Saidi, says the government appreciates the role Faith Based Organisations play in constructing schools that help foster education since they are handed over to government to run or are managed as assisted schools or colleges.
“Management and administration of these schools include deployment and payment of teachers as well as maintenance of infrastructure.
“Generally, there are no conditions attached to the handover of these school to government.
“[But] recently, various Faith Based Organisations have raised concerns about the dress code in schools. This is an important matters that requires broad consensus by all stakeholders.
“Consequently, Government intends to place the matter before the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) during the school holidays in order for stakeholders to consult and advise government accordingly,” says Saidi.
Meanwhile, as an administrative measure, the Ministry advises that no child should be excluded from school for dressing according to their religious rights.
But ECM and MCC say that at their meeting held on 18th July, 2017 at the Catholic Secretariat in Lilongwe, they deliberated on the serious matter regarding the Dress Code in Christian schools.
“The meeting resolved to say NO to the proposed Dress Code in our Christian schools based on the following Principle of the Common Good; Respect for the Opinion of the Majority; The Right of Proprietors to Freedom of Religion and MOU Between Churches and Government.
On Principle of the Common Good, the two Organisations say their head teachers are of the opinion that the implementation of the Dress Code will create more problems in the management of the schools rather than promoting harmony in a conducive teaching and learning environment.
“Christian schools are built on the foundation of a firm discipline namely, policies, school rules and sanctions which are intended to promote good order of the community and as such are positive concepts.
“There should be aids to the fostering of self-discipline and responsibility (Catholic Education Policy Art 2.10) — school uniform is one such example of that Christian discipline.
Respect for the Opinion of the Majority
“As ECM and MCC, we sustain the view that school uniform represents the interests of the Church. Historically, school uniform was introduced to promote harmony and conducive teaching and learning environment.
“As proprietors of Christian schools, we therefore, question the motive behind a single religion dictating on what has to be done in Christian schools. We feel this is an issue that the majority of parents/guardians need to be consulted too.
“Education is an issue of national concern and the interest of all citizens. ACEM is a big stakeholder/partner of the Government in Education and it is vital that parents who send their learners to schools under ACEM should be consulted on such a matter that concerns their faith.
The Right of Proprietors to Freedom of Religion
“What is the Interpretation of Chapter 80 paragraph 6 of the Education Act, about religious instruction? This Chapter provides for religious freedom — if this clause implies that the Minister can waive this law about religious instruction, is it not possible to apply the same to the Dress Code?
“Does the Ministry have an option to ask for a Judicial Review to ensure that both the learner and the Proprietor exercise their Freedom of Religion?
MOU Between Churches and Government
“We, as ECM and MCC, are of the view that the proposed Dress Code ultimately infringes on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Churches and the Government.
“For a long time, Church and State partnership has been manifested concretely in the area of education.
“In Christian schools, uniform has served to promote unity and equality of students regardless of religious, racial and socio-economic background.
“We believe that improvements will come about in the education system only if there is mutual trust and genuine partnership between the Church and the State.
“Unfortunately, the implementation of the dress code has the potential of bringing divisions and misunderstandings rather than promoting harmony.
“Ultimately, the issue touches on the Church’s Right to Freedom of Religion as a Proprietor.
“While the Church recognizes her responsibility to support in every way possible the education goals of the Government, we also believe that the Government has the duty and the obligation to respect and defend the rights and the legitimate aspirations of the Church.
“One of which is the promotion of uniform in Christian schools. The Government should not dictate to the Church what to do. Principles and values of the faith community should be respected at all times.
“The Christian schools under ACEM strive to be relevant to and welcoming to all persons irrespective of gender, race, culture or religion.
“We welcome teachers, parents and learners who may not be Christians but who respect Christian ethos and seek its values.
“In our schools, respect is accorded to the faith of all members who come from different religious backgrounds, identities, and traditions.
“Openness and dialogue are encouraged and practices as a means of intellectual, moral and spiritual development.
“Christian schools have been accommodating from the beginning, which is the nature of Christian tradition.
“However, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi and the Malawi Council of Churches feel that if pushed to the corner we may consider making all our schools private.
“This will surely not be in the interest of ECM and MCC as we have always strived to make our schools as accessible as possible to all Malawian pupils.
The statement was signed on 14th August 2017 by chairperson of Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Most Rev. Thomas Msusa (Archbishop of Blantyre) and Malawi Council of Churches Rt. Rev. Fanuel Emmanuel Magangani (Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Northern Malawi.