People with disabilities struggle in Malawi's cities

How can the Sustainable Development Goals help children with disabilities in Malawi's cities?

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Insight by 
Steve Sharra
Steve Sharra is a Malawian blogger and senior lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi
06 June 2016
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An image of the outside of a Malawi bank, showing a ramp installed for wheelchair users. Generally the country is lagging behind in terms of provisions for people with disabilities (Photo: Steve Sharra)

A ramp is provided for wheelchair users outside a Malawi bank, but generally the country is lagging behind in terms of provisions for people with disabilities (Photo: Copyright Steve Sharra)

Walking around cities in Malawi, one thing that stands out is the lack of signs catering for people with disabilities. 

One Malawian who knows this well is Fatima Kalima. A wheelchair user, she has first-hand experience of which facilities in Malawi's two biggest cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe, have or have not thought about disability.

Kalima, 36, lives in Blantyre and wishes to one day visit the city's giant and historic Kamuzu Stadium. But as famous and important as the stadium is, it is one of the many buildings without wheelchair ramps and as such it remains inaccessible to people with physical disabilities.

Inclusivity is a key theme running through several of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 11 is specifically to do with cities and calls for cities and human settlements to be made inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Kalima's life story challenges Malawian cities to think and plan in a more inclusive way.

Kalima was born in Blantyre and her family then lived in Ndirande, a densely populated township. When she was two years old, the family moved to Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe, and then back to Blantyre. Kalima has lived in the Bangwe-Namiyango area in Blantyre since 2002.

Growing up, Kalima did not think of herself as disabled, and nor did her friends. She taught herself to reframe challenges and not see them as obstacles.

"My friends treated me as normal," she said. "It was only when I grew up that I started realising I had a disability, from the way grown-ups treated me."

Needing a lift

She attended primary and secondary school but faced constraints. In Malawi schools didn't include children like her in their plans. "I needed my friends to lift me up the steps," said Kalima. After her secondary studies she wasn't able to easily find a job and resorted to selling phone credit cards in Blantyre.

It took years before she could pick up any further education, but she recently completed a diploma in Disability Studies through an online course with a US university. Having witnessed how difficult it was both to access education and earn a living as person with disabilities, Kalima decided to start a group to help children with disabilities in her community.

In 2009 she founded the Forum for the Development of Youth with Disabilities (FODEYOD) to provide education to disadvantaged children with disabilities in the Namiyango-Bangwe area of Blantyre City.

"I started the school to give space to people with disabilities and to help youth with disabilities through education, as well as business skills, because I saw how difficult life had been for many of us," she said.

The school provides education for children between two and 13 years. There are currently 108 children in the school; 40 girls and 68 boys. They study English, Chichewa (Malawi's national language), maths and carpentry.

Path to success

Since 2009, three students have gone on to find gainful employment. One is in tailoring, and two are journalists, one with a leading daily newspaper and the other with the state broadcaster. Kalima talks about these achievements with pride.

Blantyre, a city of close to one million people, needs to do better to ensure persons with disabilities are catered for in the plans for infrastructure and social services.

A picturesque view of the hilly terrain of Malawi city Blantyre. The undulations make provision for disabled facilities even more important (Photo: Steve Sharra)

While Kalima is proud of setting up the school, she insists such efforts remain far below the assistance needed for the country's children with disabilities.

The 2008 census showed there were 498,122 people with disabilities in Malawi, 3.8 per cent of the population. These figures are slightly up from 1983 when an estimated 2.9 per cent of Malawi's population had a disability, with 93 per cent living in rural areas and seven per cent in urban areas. The 2008 census found that 35 per cent of people with disabilities had never attended school, compared to 18 per cent among the rest of the population.

Among children, according to UNICEF, there's a 2.4 per cent prevalence of disability in Malawi. Besides education, children with disabilities have problems accessing health services, mainly due to problems with mobility and stigma by health workers.

In education, most school buildings are not disability-friendly, and there is a shortage of specialist teachers. Most schools do not have assistive devices and do not provide an assistant. According to UNICEF, examinations are unfair and discriminatory. These problems result in low education levels for people with disabilities, which in turn result in lower employment rates perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

The 2014 Malawi Education Statistics reported that there were a total of 207 special needs resource centres in the country, out of a required 3,132.

The next step

Malawi ratified the International Labour Organisation's Convention on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities and in 2007 Malawi signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These UN conventions and international instruments are only a first step to recognising the challenges facing people with disabilities.

Dr. Alister Munthali of the University of Malawi's Centre for Social Research points out: "Malawi has an adequate policy and legal environment for promoting and upholding the rights of people with disabilities but awareness levels remain low."

Efforts to develop a National Disability Mainstreaming Plan for Malawi could be boosted by implementing the SDGs to benefit people with disabilities. A National Policy on the Equalisation of Persons with Disabilities was launched in 2006, and in 2012 the Malawi parliament passed the Disability Act.

A 2014 study reported that the majority of Lilongwe's one million residents have no "access to public services" and that they suffer "indignities" associated with poor urban settlements. The study recommended better management of urban growth for Lilongwe to "develop into an equitable city for all".

An image of the front of the Forum for the Development of Youth with Disabilities, set up by Fatima Kalima, provides education to disadvantaged children with disabilities in Blantyre (Photo: Steve Sharra)

Currently Kalima's school caters only for children with mental and physical disabilities. The school doesn't cater for visually impaired students yet and Kalima hopes to add this service when the funds are secured.

In her own way, Kalima is working toward helping Malawi achieve SDG 11 on making cities inclusive. The policy framework is there. The point is how to implement it.

Steve Sharra ([email protected]) is a Malawian blogger who writes on educational issues, Pan-Africanism, and global social justice. He is a senior lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi, and has research and teaching interests in teacher education, social inequality, social justice, public policy, and language policy. On 13 June, a dialogue event will discuss how the SDGs present challenges and opportunities for urbanisation in the LDCs.