Equal rights, right?

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Bec Carey

As Early Childhood Educators we empower the children to have their voice heard, to share their opinions and ideas. We support them to become an advocate for their rights. There is no question about it, we view them as equals. From the experiences we promote, to the resources we provide -they are for everyone. There is no boys and girls segregation. No discrimination of gender. No exclusion and no superior being. They are children. Human beings. Equality of sexes isn’t an issue. They are naturally equal. If we can practice this naturally as early childhood professionals, why can’t society as a whole? Why is it that schools are still implementing outdated practice, including gender segregation and discrimination. By now if you have read my work or know me personally, you will have gathered just how strong my views on children’s rights are. Especially when it comes to equality of sexes and gender discrimination.

The following is a letter I wrote to the Principal of my daughters school. Yes, I know it’s not standard letter format. Let’s just call it a ‘Standard Bec format’. 

Dear Mr Principal,

After my daughter put in her request to wear shorts to school instead of a dress. I thought, ‘Why not?! It’s 2016, people don’t discriminate about gender anymore’ I immediately purchased her items from the school’s uniform shop, including polo shirts and sports shorts. She was ecstatic. Over the moon. “It’s sooooo comfortable Mum! I wish I had always worn this. I feel so free” Her happiness and comfort in expressing herself was real. My daughter’s honest and open mind allowed her to see everyone as equals, including herself. The boys have a right to wear shorts, a right to comfort. Surely the girls held this right too? After all it is 2016 and we are all about equal rights, right? Apparently not.
Much to my utter disbelief and shock after a few weeks of comfort and happiness my daughter came home upset, confused and nervous. “Mr Principal said the girls have to wear dresses and the boys have to wear t-shirt and shorts” she exclaimed, “Mum can you do something about it?” She knows me too well, I have raised her to be an advocate for her rights, to be inclusive towards others and to stand strong for what she believes in. As she stood before me, the look on her face broke my heart. I asked her if she wanted to wear the dress, she replied with a strong firm, “No”, and again reiterated her desire for the comfort of the shorts and polo. I’m sure Mr Principal wouldn’t wear a dress if someone demanded it, so why should my daughter.

The whole scenario really got me thinking. I wonder when the last time the school sat down and reflected on the purpose of the school uniform. I understand that a uniforms purpose is to promote the school, to make them stand out. In public the uniform portrays neatness, conformity and respect even. Each school has its own style and colour, their own code. What I don’t understand is the need to segregate boys and girls. Surely children all dressed in shirts and shorts would still look neat and respectful? Even a bus filled with children in combinations of dresses and shorts, which is already the case although segregated by sex, would still portray the look of conformity and structure that schools desire. Would it really matter if a girl wore shorts? GASP, she may be able to cartwheel without flashing her underwear! Are kids allowed to cartwheel these days? Or has their right to play and freedom of movement been squashed along the way with all this sex and gender discrimination practice?

Speaking of children’s rights, how does making a girl wear a dress abide to The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)? The UNCRC is a comprehensive, internationally binding agreement on the rights of children. One particular article of the UNCRC that you may be interested in is, Article 29, titled ‘Aims of Education’. Within this article it discusses that the education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child’s personality, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms- that probably includes cartwheels sans underwear flashing. Among many other rights it actually states, “The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendships among all people….” Boom! There it is, in plain text and now in bold text, just in case you missed it, Equality of Sexes. It seems that in fact my initial thought was correct. The right to be a girl and wear shorts was there all along.

After reading my letter, my daughter had a new concern. “But Mum what if it doesn’t work, what if they still tell me to wear a dress?” Well of course I told her that she will have to wear a dress to school…………when Mr Principal does. Equal rights, right?

Kind regards,

Bec Carey

The response I received directed blame and power to the P&C and the Uniform committee. Mr Principal informed me they had voted the uniform in quite some time ago. Recently they had noticed girls wearing the ‘boys’ uniform and had asked him to make the children comply with the uniform code. In the Principals Report section of the previous weeks newsletter he had stated, “Girls are to wear the blue dress….and boys are to wear grey shorts and the blue polo….”. In his reply to me, he suggested that if I wanted the get the uniform changed I had to go through the P&C and the Uniform Committee.  It seemed he was trying to dodge my bullet. Unluckily for him I was armed with a stronger weapon, more knowledge and facts.

I wrote...

Dear Mr Principal,

Thank you for taking time to respond to my letter. It seems though perhaps you have misunderstood my intent. I am not asking for the uniform to be changed. Although I do have to note the past error that was made when the P&C agreed that the girls uniform consisted of dresses and the boys of shorts as this does not comply with The Boys’ and Girls’ Education Strategy’  that umbrellas all state schools, and therefore it makes their choice an invalid one. I would suggest labeling all pieces of the school uniform, “The School’s Uniform” rather than ‘boys’ uniform’ and ‘girls’ uniform’ as this would save you from future discrimination battles. Furthermore, as Principal of the school, you should advocate for Gender Equity Rights and announce that all items listed in the school uniform shop are available to both sexes. This was my intent, for my child not to be discriminated against because of their choice to wear shorts instead of the dress.

Although I am sure you are already aware, The Boys’ and Girls’ Education Strategy  states, “The NSW Department of Education and Training rejects all forms of unlawful discrimination including discrimination on the grounds of sex. The Boys’ and Girls’ Education Strategy reinforces schools’ responsibilities with regard to sex related discrimination under the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and other relevant legislation. This Strategy is to be implemented in accordance with all other NSW Department of Education and Training policies and guidelines” Again, as Principal of the school it is you, not the P&C or Uniform Committee that is required to ensure all legislations and policies are adhered to at all times. As I stated before, I am not asking for the uniform to be changed, just for you to abide by the current lawful documents in place.

I look forward to reading your announcement in the newsletter in regards to all uniform items being available to both sexes, of all ages.

Kind regards,

Bec Carey

As I awaited my reply, I sat here stunned and shocked at the backwardness of this practice. Childhood is a time to explore, test limits and figure stuff out. Does it really matter if a girl wears shorts to school? They are there to learn, surely comfort sits high on the priority list to promote engaged learning. I reflected on how far we have come within the early childhood profession. I thought that by 2016 the schools would have caught up and modernised their practice. As Early Childhood Educators, united we stand strong to advocate for children’s rights and anti-discrimination. We can wait for others to catch up, or together we can shout out to the world and watch as children become strong, confident and comfortable in their own skin, or in my daughters case her uniform. 

You will be pleased to know that Mr Principal published an amendment in that weeks newsletter. It read, “Even though we have the options listed in the uniform guide as boys and girls there are no barriers to all students accessing both choices of uniform”  He then went on to further discuss the now gender neutral named ‘everyday uniform choices’ and announced that the sports shorts were not part of that code. Uh oh. My daughter read his response and expressed her desire to keep wearing the sports shorts with the polo instead of the stiff grey option.

Recently Newtown High School of the Performing Arts underwent a battle to promote gender neutral uniforms. Their aim was to change the schools uniform policy to allow both sexes to wear either part of the uniform options. Although they technically didn’t need to ‘battle’ as the right was always there, they won. During the media frenzy that they attracted, a Spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education reported that “Students can wear any part of the available uniform options”. I am guessing that includes sports shorts too. You can read more about their story here.

http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/learning-hub/educator-resources/childrens-rights/

http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf

http://www.childrensrights.ie/sites/default/files/submissions_reports/files/UNCRCEnglish_0.pdf

http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/australia/77164220/sydney-high-school-wins-battle-for-gender-neutral-uniforms

http://www.schools.nsw.edu.au/media/downloads/schoolsweb/studentsupport/studentwellbeing/schuniforms.pdf

 

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