Recognized worldwide each year on Jan. 24, the International Day of Education marks a crucial time to reflect on the challenges marginalized groups face, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people, in accessing quality education.
Tragically, the recent case of 12-year-old Sibusiso Mbatha, a South African sixth grader who took his own life in October after facing homophobic remarks from a deputy principal, highlights the urgent need for South African schools to protect and support their LGBTIQ students. This article sheds light on the failures of a South African school in safeguarding the rights of LGBTIQ children and emphasizes the importance of inclusive education policies. Additionally, we discuss the concerning developments in Ghana, where the parliament seeks to criminalize LGBTQ individuals, further denying them a safe space in educational institutions.
Sibusiso Mbatha's Tragic Story
The untimely death of Sibusiso Mbatha has brought attention to the alarming issue of homophobia, which often results in violence within and outside educational environments. A report investigating the circumstances surrounding his suicide revealed that a teacher at Khehlekile Primary School in South Africa’s Gauteng Province made derogatory remarks about his sexual Identity and expression. The deputy principal allegedly told him to "leave your gayism outside the classroom," contributing to Mbatha's distress. These homophobic comments highlight the failure of the school to protect its students. On that day, Sibusiso hanged himself in an outside toilet at home.
South African Policies and Constitutional Commitments
South Africa has made significant strides in protecting the rights of LGBTIQ individuals since the end of apartheid in 1994. The country's Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Besides the constitutions that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, there are also provincial guidelines, such as the Western Cape Education Department Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Guidelines (2020), that aim to prevent the abuse and victimization based on sexual orientation and gender identity by encouraging every school to create a safe space, inclusive curriculum, and further training of schools to raise awareness of LGBTIQ rights within the South African schooling environment. These guidelines aim to improve teachers' capacity and confidence to address homophobia in South African schools, engendering non-homophobic school contexts. The Western Cape policy guidelines foster safe spaces and inclusive curricula and raise awareness of sexual and gender diversity within the schooling environment, providing protection and accommodations for LGBTIQ students. These guidelines reference a South African Human Rights Commission report which recommended that the Department of Education, the Department of Arts and Culture, and the Department of Justice encourage the use of Equality Courts in local communities, with a focus on popularizing these courts in rural areas and townships, which could potentially benefit LGBTIQ students. In the case of Sibusiso Mbatha, the South African Gauteng Provincial Education Department does not seem to be using any of the report's recommendations to implement a safe environment for LGBTIQ children in schools.
Ghana's Backlash Against LGBTQ+ Rights
The incident in South Africa is not an isolated case. Violence against LGBTIQ learners is commonplace around the globe. This violence intensifies when governments themselves persecute LGBTIQ people, as in Ghana, where a regressive "Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill" is currently pending before Parliament. In one recent incident, according to Rightify Ghana, a widely publicized anti-gay attack took place on a university campus, targeting a young man believed to be queer. During the incident on Jan. 14 at the Legon campus outside Accra, a group of fellow students assaulted and stripped the young man naked. They subjected him to a traumatic experience, labeling him as gay while wielding sticks. The victim, visibly traumatized, had to walk naked on campus, with bystanders from their hostels watching and questioning the unfolding situation.
The Center for Democratic Development-Ghana (CDD-Ghana) and Rightify Ghana condemned these acts, which go against the inclusive and progressive standards and guidelines set by the University of Ghana. The response from the university, which lacked facts, did not give hope for recourse for the victim in the incident. To add fuel to the already raging fire, Ghana's Parliament seeks to criminalize LGBTQ individuals through the proposed Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill. This regressive legislation undermines Ghana’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call for inclusivity and social progress to “leave no one behind.”
Discrimination has a significant impact on school society, affecting lecturers or teachers, queer students, and non-queer students. For instance, queer students face harassment and abuse, leading to fear and anxiety, which can affect their academic performance and overall well-being. Additionally, the anti-LGBTIQ environment has limited the participation of queer students in school activities, leading to isolation and withdrawal from school life. Lecturers may contribute to the discrimination by using queer students as examples in class, which violates their fundamental human rights and creates an unwelcoming environment. Non-queer students may also be affected by the discriminatory climate, as it can lead to a lack of trust and fear of expressing support for queer individuals. This kind of discrimination can also end in death, as in the case of Sibusiso Mbatha from South Africa.
The Importance of Inclusive Education Policies
On the International Day of Education, it is crucial to recognize the role of education in promoting peace, development, and the realization of human rights. Outright International is currently researching the impact of discriminatory and inclusive education policies, which will shed light on the challenges LGBTIQ students face in educational settings. The research will also analyze best practices for upholding LGBTIQ learners’ right to education.
The tragic story of Sibusiso Mbatha and the developments in Ghana are stark reminders of the urgent need for inclusive education policies worldwide. South African schools must take immediate action to protect their LGBTIQ students and uphold the principles enshrined in the country's constitution. Similarly, Ghana's parliament must shelve the proposed legislation that would further marginalize and criminalize LGBTIQ individuals and enact policies that protect everyone from discrimination, including LGBTIQ students.
LGBTIQ students face discrimination in school settings not only in Africa but also globally. This discrimination hinders their access to quality education and contributes to their marginalization. Educational institutions and policymakers must reaffirm their commitment to inclusive education, ensuring that all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, have a safe and supportive learning environment. Let us reaffirm our commitment to inclusive and equitable education for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity.