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In every region in the world, in every country in the world, persons with disabilities often live on the margins of society, deprived of some of life’s fundamental experiences. They have little hope of going to school, getting a job, having their own home, creating a family and raising their children, enjoying a social life or voting. For the vast majority of the world’s persons with disabilities, shops, public facilities and transport, and even information are largely out of reach.

Regardless of a country’s human rights or economic situation, persons with disabilities elsewhere are generally the last in line to have their human rights respected. Being denied the opportunities that would enable them to be self-sufficient, most persons with disabilities resort to the kindness or charity of others.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD), disability rates are significantly higher among groups with lower educational attainment in the countries of the OECD. On average, 19 percent of less-educated people have disabilities, compared to 11 percent among better-educated people.

The Department for International Development (DFID) in the United Kingdom says mortality for children with disabilities may be as high as 80 percent in countries where under-five mortality, as a whole, has fallen to below 20 percent. It further states that in some cases, it seems as if disabled children are being “weeded out.”

Global statistics also show that the needs of children with disabilities, in particular, deserve special attention. Up to 150 million children globally have a disability and the numbers are rising. 50 percent of children who are deaf and 60 percent of those with an intellectual impairment are sexually abused. In some countries 90 percent of children with disabilities will not survive beyond the age of 20. 98 percent of children with disabilities across the developing world have no access to education.

Malawi Situation

Although there are no specific provisions protecting rights of persons with disabilities in the Republican Constitution of Malawi, these are protected by other provisions nevertheless. The provision on equality in Section 20, for instance, demands that there shall be no discrimination on any grounds including disability. In Section 13(g) of the Constitution, the state makes a commitment to support the disabled through (a) greater access to public places, (b) fair opportunities in employment and (c) the fullest possible participation in all spheres of Malawian society.

The 1998 Population and Housing Census conducted by National Statistics Office (NSO) revealed that the country’s total population with disabilities is 4.2 percent. It further revealed that 54 percent are males while females make up 46 percent. The rural-urban distribution of the disabled population is 3 percent for rural areas and 2 percent for urban. The disability population was distributed as follows: 18.2 percent for physical disability; 20.5 percent for visually impaired; 8.5 percent for intellectually impaired; 13.3 percent for impaired hearing; 18.8 percent for epilepsy; 4.5 percent for asthma; 16.2 percent account for other disabilities.

According to the census, 42 percent of the population with disabilities is at school going age, between the ages 5 – 13 years, but only 37 percent of the children with disabilities at school going age were enrolled in 1998 compared to 78 percent national enrollment rate.

Despite being theoretically entitled to all human rights, persons with disabilities in the country are still, in practice, denied those basic rights and fundamental freedoms that most people take for granted. A study conducted in 2004 by the University of Malawi’s Centre for Social Research (CSR) entitled “Living Conditions of persons with disabilities in Malawi” revealed that many persons with disabilities are denied their right to information which puts then at risk to HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, increased poverty, just to mention a few.

Right to Education for Children with Disabilities, and other challenges

In 2000, more than 1000 participants from 164 countries gathered in Dakar, Senegal, for the World Education FOCUS where the participants – ranging from teachers to prime ministers, academics to policymakers, non-governmental bodies to the heads of major international organisations – adopted the 2000-word “Dakar Framework for Action, Education for All [EFA].”

One of the six EFA goals that were agreed upon is the expansion and improvement of comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Achieving the right to education for persons with disabilities in basic education is a challenging task, but entirely necessary to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of education for all by the target date of 2015, according to the EFA Flagship document entitled, “The Right to Education for Persons with Disabilities: Towards Inclusion”.

Yet twelve years down the line, many children with disabilities are still going through tormenting experiences in Malawi. Statistics show that there are over 80, 000 special needs children in the country. Furthermore, there are only 13 resource centres specialized for the special needs children throughout the country, which are few compared with the magnitude of the problem on the ground. Most of these resource centres were actually established by church missionaries long time ago rather than the Government. Yet Government fails to adequately resource the already few centres available, let a lone increase the number.

For instance, a child who is visually impaired in Chitipa District must travel all the way to the ill-resourced St. Mary’s School in Karonga District; the one in Mulanje must travel to Lurwe in Nsanje; and the one in Mchinji must travel to Malingunde in Lilongwe.

It is a pity that even in this era disability is still treated as an issue of charity – not necessarily an issue of human rights – at both policy and community levels. The number of special needs teachers in the country is still inadequate, and Government is often sluggish in developing an all-inclusive curriculum. Government changes the curriculum now and again, yet it takes time to put the curriculum in Braille.

Over the past few decades, many governments have introduced measures to promote a range of rights for persons with disabilities. In 2006, the UN adopted the International Convention on Rights of Disabled People (CRPD), and many governments and international development agencies are turning their attention to the goal of including persons with disabilities in development. In terms of domestication of the Convention, it is imperative to note that ratification of CRPD would not be meaningful if the Malawi Government fails to enact the long-awaited Disability Bill, known as the “Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities Bill.”


So what should Government, policy makers, rights advocates, local leaders, yourself ad myself do to promote the right to education for persons with disabilities in Malawi?

bullet First, there is need for more sensitization not only at policy level but, more significantly, at community level. This is one of the critical roles that rights advocates and local leaders can play at local level. Due to the prevailing negative cultural beliefs, parents need to be sensitized on the rights of disabled children, including the right to education.
bullet On its part, Government must implement clear policies aimed at enhancing opportunities for persons with disabilities, and create conducive legislative environment to protect and enhance their participation. The enactment of the draft “Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities Bill”  which is still gathering dust in the Government’s shelves is now long over-due.
bullet There is need to ensure that necessary resources are allocated to and for children with disabilities and their families. This includes free primary and secondary education in accessible buildings, training of teachers and other professionals, financial support and social security.
bullet Each child should be provided with appropriate individual support, including assistive devices, sign language, Braille materials and a differentiated and accessible curriculum. 


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