UN urges tolerance in Malawi after schoolgirls prevented from wearing hijabs

The United Nations has called for religious tolerance in Malawi after two girls were reportedly prevented from attending school for wearing hijabs this week, sparking days of violence between the community’s Muslims and Christians.

The alleged incident happened at M’manga primary school in the southern town of Balaka. The Anglican church, which built the government-run school, has reportedly banned students from wearing head coverings in class, saying it violates the agreed-upon school uniform.

On Monday, men from the church reportedly snatched the hijabs off the heads of two pupils on their way to school, according to local newspaper The Daily Times.

ABC News has reached out to Malawi’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology for comment on the alleged incident.

(MORE:After a soccer player’s hijab slipped off during a game, her opponents paused mid-play to huddle around her)

Maria Jose Torres, the U.N. resident coordinator in Malawi, expressed concern over the intolerance in a statement released Tuesday.

“Such actions discourage girls from attending school, denying them the right to learn and actively participate in society,” Torres said, “at a time when Malawi is focusing on ending child marriage and keeping girls in school.”

PHOTO: In this Oct. 4, 2018, file photo, a teacher instructs students as they sit in their classroom during a visit by the U.S. First lady to the Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe, Malawi.
In this Oct. 4, 2018, file photo, a teacher instructs students as they sit in their classroom during a visit by the U.S. First lady to the Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe, Malawi.more +

The alleged incident reportedly led to disagreements between the town’s Muslim and Christian residents, which escalated into violence. At least two people were seriously injured in the clashes, according to The Daily Times.

The school’s windows were smashed, shops were vandalized and a house belonging to the priest of M’manga parish was also damaged, the newspaper reported.

Malawi’s population of over 18 million is predominately Christian, with less than a quarter of people practicing Islam. The country’s constitution enshrines the freedom of expression and religion.

Torres has urged all Malawians to “respect each other’s religious believe and engage in peaceful dialogue to resolve differences.” She also called on the authorities in the southern African nation to ensure everyone is “able to exercise their beliefs and cultural practices free from persecution and discrimination.”

“The rights to freedom of expression and religion are fundamental rights that ensure human dignity and a functional democracy,” Torres said. “Preventing access to services such as education because students choose to wear an expression of their religion goes against these important human rights and international standards on freedom of education.”

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