Time to amend Jamaica’s Education Act

Primary School in Jamaica

As Jamaicans at home and abroad celebrate the 58th anniversary of their country’s Independence today, we wish to extend our best wishes to all of them as we look forward to an end to the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic which has not spared their homeland.

Last Saturday, Jamaicans, like many others in our Caribbean community, were celebrating another important occasion – Emancipation Day.

And while that too was a time for rejoicing, unfortunately, among  many, there was confusion about the right to wear dreadlocks in the homeland of Bob  Marley – an issue that many felt was settled a long time ago.

On the day before Emancipation  Day, Jamaica’s  Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional rights of a five-year-old girl were not breached in 2018 when she was denied access to the Kensington Primary School in Portmore, St Catherine because of her dreadlocked hair.

Not surprisingly, the court decision has drawn an emotional response from many who are undoubtely proud of their dreadlocks and believe it’s their God-given constitutional right to wear it wherever they wish.

According to local media reports, while residents of Portmore, St. Catharine praised the strict disciplinary standards instituted at Kensington Primary school,  they felt that the court decision will fuel classism.

And a fruit vendor said he did  not think this [ decision] ” is going down well with the public.”

“I can’t believe,” he said, ” this is even an issue. How dis fi be an issue in 2020?”

Alando Terrelonge, minister in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information who wears dreadlocks said he was embarrased to say “to say I live/work in the land of Bob Marley.”

But let us take  a look at the case of the dreadlocked girl who is now seven years of age.

In August 2018, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), a human rights organization, obtained an order preventing the board of management from blocking the girl’s admission to the school she was attending.

The injunction was filed on behalf of the parents of the child, who were given an ultimatum by the school that their daughter had until August 29, 2018 to remove her locks to enter grade one in September in keeping with the school’s policy.

JFJ  challenged the school’s position on the basis that enforcement of the rule would violate constitutionally protected human rights of the child and her family and that no other remedy existed to prevent the threat of that violation, given the school’s demand.

But in a written judgement the court said that ” the ‘no braids, no beads, no locks’ policy of Kensington Primary School did not violate the constitutional right of the seven-year-old girl.

And the judges pointed out that the lawyer who represented the family showed a clear misuderstanding of the law in  his submissions on the issue of freedom of religion.

“While I am in agreement that people have a right to express their religious beliefs, or indeed any other conscientiously held beliefs to which they adhere, there is nothing in this case that directs the mind of this court to believe that the claimant’s right to freedom of religion has been breached, said Justice Sonia Betram Linton.

It is true that Rastafarians have experienced discrimination because of their dreadlocks.But according to local media reports, the seven  year old girl and her mother do not consider themselves Rastafarians but wear dreadlocks as a way to express their identity.

Commenting on  the issue, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness,  said that ” our children must not be discriminated against or deprived of their right to an education on the basis of their hairstyle.

He is right.

Clearly, the time has come, as Prime Minister Holness has suggested, to review and amend [Jamaica’s]  Education Act to reflect a modern and culturally inclusive position that “protects our children from being barred from any educational institution on the basis of wearing locks as an ordinary hairstyle, irrespective of religious reasons.”

Let’s hope that the suggested amendment to the country’s Education Act  is made well before  Emancipation Day 2021.