Access to good-quality education, regardless of one’s physical or social status, is a basic human right that is supported by various domestic and international instruments. But as SAM KALIMIRA highlights in this FRIDAY SHAKER, learners with special needs in Malawi continue being left behind.
One November morning in 2006, the family of Modicai Mbowe welcomed a baby girl at Chitipa District Hospital and they named her Modester. They had prayed for that day for eternity.
It was a rosy journey until Modester began to experience seizures which require that she has proper support and care while in school. Her dream of becoming a nurse is slowly turning upside down.
She is in Standard Six at Chitipa Full Primary School.
Her father says Modester has epilepsy and collapses four times on average every month. Apparently, her life took this turn when she was in Standard Four.
“Last year, my daughter became very sick. We thought it was typhoid fever but tests conducted at the hospital revealed she had sickle cell anaemia. We were once admitted to Mzuzu Central Hospital for a month,” Mbowe says.
Modester’s condition requires special attention so that her learning in class progresses optimally. But like several other learners with special needs, she cannot get that support because her school does not have teachers specialised in that area.
Her teacher, Mwai Minga, admits that it is not easy to teach special needs learners because he was not professionally trained on how to handle such people.
“We do teach them but it is not easy. In many cases, we just use the try-and-error approach,” he says.
Across the country, many special needs learners face challenges because they do not have qualified teachers to handle them.
Chitipa District Special Needs Desk Office, Dennis Mwenibiba, says the whole district has only seven specialist special needs teachers against over 35,000 learners in 179 schools.
He adds that the situation is worse in the 28 secondary schools in the border district as the schools do not have special needs teachers.
“We have engaged some teachers so that they gain basic skills of handling special needs learners. That is not even easy to achieve because we face challenges in terms of resources,” Mwenibiba says.
In 2017, the Malawi government started implementing the National Inclusive Education Strategy (NIES) which was developed to promote government policy on inclusive education linked to Sustainable Development Goal Number Four that commits all governments to implement an inclusive, equitable and quality education and life-long learning for all.
Through NIES, government is invited to preserve special schools and resource centres and use them as a resource to promote inclusive education.
But according to a research conducted by Livingstonia Synod of Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Education Department, 89 percent of the communities in Malawi view children of disability as useless.
The report further says despite government having introduced NIES, it has not done much in making sure that there are enough teachers for special needs learners, disability-friendly structures and on sensitising people especially in rural areas to the importance of education to children with disabilities.
In Karonga district, some parents still think education is not for children with disabilities.
Vumilira Banda, from Traditional Authority (T/A) Kyungu admits that she used to lock up her 15-year-old son Mike in the house.
It had to take the intervention of education stakeholders for her to change her mindset. Still, she admits, there are several parents who have not yet been ‘enlightened’ in terms of sending children with disability to school.
“My son is physically challenged and he has to be assisted always. I used to lock him up in the house because I thought he could not be assisted at school. Now he is attending school. Of course, he faces challenges but the most important thing is that he goes to school,” Banda says.
At 15, Mike is in Standard One at Nthora Primary School in the lakeshore district. He wants to become a doctor but fears such a dream may never be realised due to challenges he faces to access education.
Our visits to some schools in Chitipa, Karonga and Nkhata Bay have unearthed serious challenges that learners with special needs face.
For instance, several schools do not have disability-friendly structures such that learners with mobility challenges sometimes fail to access education in such schools.
Livingstonia Synod Project Officer Thomas Nkhonjera says while the government has put in place attractive policies for the promotion of inclusive education, implementation remains a big challenge.
“There are gaps that need to be filled, otherwise learners with special needs will continue being left behind,” Nkhonjera says.
Director of Special Needs Education in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Noel Mwango, states that while funding challenges are there, through decentralisation, councils are supposed to prepare a budget that has an allocation for assisting special needs learners in schools.
He says various stakeholders must play their part in ensuring special needs education is available to all those who require it.
Mwango also challenges local councils to pay more attention to special needs education.
“Let Controlling Officers in councils know that children with disability are like any other children and they need education. Our central government budget cannot address challenges at school in rural areas,” Mwango says.
Mwango adds that the Ministry of Education is making sure that the teachers that are currently trained in colleges have basic skills to teach special needs learners.
On his part, education rights activist, Benedicto Kondowe, says the government is obliged to make sure all children, regardless of their status, have access to education.
He warns that leaving children with disabilities out of education is creating a poverty-stricken future nation.
“Government has the responsibility of ensuring that access to education is there for everyone. It should not sleep on its job much as we all have the responsibility of ensuring that access to education for all is a reality,” Kondowe says.
And for Modester and thousands other learners with special needs, the future looks bleak. They are already vulnerable and would significantly raise their social statuses in the future if they attained good-quality education.