Should schools dictate what underwear colour girls should wear?

Schoolgirls should not be told what underwear to wear. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Media

Schoolgirls should not be told what underwear to wear. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Media

Published Mar 17, 2024


How far should schools be allowed to go in terms of school uniform - dictating hair policy, hair type and length, and even commanding the colour of underwear schoolgirls should wear?

In its recent report, the South African Human Rights Commission found that there was no legitimate purpose for regulating hair length, applying different standards to male and female learners, disallowing natural hair, enforcing gender-stereotypical uniforms, regulating the colour of girls’ hair and underwear, and treating appearance and uniform violations as disciplinary issues.

The Cape Argus reported this week that the commission tabled a report on its investigation into school uniforms before the portfolio committee on basic education after noting an increase in reports of alleged over-regulation of school uniforms and the appearance of learners.

Scores of schools around the country dictate uniform items, including the underwear colours for girl children.

IOL spoke to a number of people, including parents, teachers and activists, to get their view on the matter.

Gender-equality activist founder and director of AbafaziPhambili, Sis' Mantoa Selepe, said: “After thirty years of democratic dispensation, I am appalled by these institutional outdated unfair dress code policy restrictions imposed on a girl child”.

She said the underwear policy posed a financial burden to parents.

“Considering the socio-economic condition faced by many unemployed parents, clearly, it is also a money-making scheme for those uniform suppliers who are aiming at capitalising on this 'underwear’. Many parents resort to second-hand uniform for their children. One cannot buy second-hand underwear,” she said.

Selepe said the underwear policy was further positioning the girl child as a social disturbance or provocative victim.

“The policy of dictating underwear as school uniform is explicitly directed to the girls, not the boys, is an extremely school-prison pipeline aimed at controlling and suppressing the girl child’s freedom,” she said.

Senami Syce who is the department head at Easter Peak Primary School, said it was strange that in 2024 such archaic rules were still being implemented.

“Underwear is such a personal preference. Girls' body shapes are completely varied and completely different to each other,” said Syce.

However, she was more concerned about how the policy in particular would be enforced without overstepping boundaries.

“I feel disappointed that girls and women are being targeted for prescribed archaic rules which have no effect on their ability to concentrate in class,” she adds.

“That is just a silly rule to rule over girls’ bodies. These are the same girls that are being taught every day in life skills about their self-image, their self-worth and positive self-concept. We are raising a generation of independent women. And now a school wants to take a thousand steps back.”

She adds that such a rule does not take the queer community into consideration.

“Prescribing such a rule will once again divide that gender difference between girls and boys. There are people who do not conform to normal gender identities and we need to be respectful of people who find themselves in that space,” said Syce.

A parent, Vicky Gounaris, who is mother of two girls, said it was not right to enforce such a policy.

“It’s not correct for any school to put a girl in that position.

“Underwear is very personal and very private and I do not think that a school should go into a child’s personality in that form. Or to put anyone in a position to make anyone uncomfortable. Not all underwear is suitable for different body shapes and sizes,” she said.

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