By Josephine Chinele:
“Ignorance is no defense” is a phrase commonly used when one is arrested for breaking the law or in mitigation in a court of law.
But it is still debatable whether it is fair to use the same phrase when handling matters involving Malawians who are visually impaired or have hearing problems.
They seemingly have limited access to law and policy documents because they are printed in a format that they cannot read.
Even the piece of law that clearly states that no one should be discriminated against, including on grounds of disability, is in a format that is discriminatory; the deaf and blind cannot read it.
Even Social advocate, Fungai Mutsinze (who also happens to be visually impaired) says he did not know that the Disability Act, which was enacted in the year 2012, is also available in Braille.
He only learnt about it in December 2018 at a meeting. If not for this gathering, he would not have known about it; meaning that many visually impaired people who do not have an opportunity to attend such meetings may not know the contents of this Act, thereby having their rights infringed on.
Inaccessibility of Malawi laws and policies was discussed at length last Thursday night in Lilongwe at a panel discussion which Non- Governmental Organisation Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN) organised. The discussion was held to highlight problems which visually impaired people are facing in understanding laws that are not in Braille.
Braille is a system that uses combinations of raised dots to spell letters and numbers. It’s used by people who are blind or partially sighted to help them read and write.
Mutsinze was one of the panelists representing the visually impaired at the discussion. He noted that visually impaired people are facing numerous challenges including inability to access information in such critical documents.
“We are vulnerable to oppression because people know that we don’t know the laws and our rights… Knowledge is power…I don’t think any law enforcer would understand if a blind person is to say they were ignorant of the country’ laws in a court of law,” he said.
NGO-GCN Network Coordinator, Innocent Hauya said a survey which the organisation did established that the visually impaired and the deaf are having difficulties to understand the laws.
“They are left out because there are inadequate Braille documents to enable them to access the information,” he disclosed.
Meanwhile, Hauya says, the Disability Act, Gender Equality Act, Trafficking in person’s Act, Domestic Violence Act, Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act and National Equalisation Strategy are already in Braille.
“It’s our wish that Parliament should put every law they pass into Braille so that they should be disseminated together with the other print formats,” he said.
NGO-GCN Chairperson, Barbra Banda said her organisation wishes to ensure that every citizen understands all the laws equally.
“The Malawi Constitution advocates for a non-discriminatory approach and if blind people are excluded, it means their rights have been violated….
“Our duty is to work with government, wherever we feel that it is falling short, in order to have Malawi laws widely disseminated to all citizens,” she said.
Chief Disability Programs Officer (Rehabilitation) in the Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare, Jessie Chiyamwaka said much as the ministry wishes to have all government departments and agencies to align their activities to the Disability Act, there are still some challenges.
She disclosed that immediately after the disability Act was passed, Department of disability trained 13 desk officers to help advance the issues within the ministry and government departments.
“But this didn’t have an impact even though we spent some resources in doing t h i s … t h e desk officers were unable to make or influence decisions because they were of lower grades as compared to the people they were supposed to influence.
“We are still trying to find a means of having desk officers who could make decisions or make an impact in their ministries,” Chiyamwaka said.
She pointed out that there is a need for coordination in order to disseminate all important documents for the benefit of the visually impaired people.
The panel discussion was organised by NGO GCN under their project called Civil Society Organisation (CSO) policy leadership and for equality on gender equality and women’s rights, with funding from Royal Norwegian Embassy.
Hauya said the project aims at ensuring that laws and all basic needs are equally distributed to all citizens. The project was launched in 2017.
According to Hauya, the organisation is yet to get the current statistics (from the just ended census) of the number of visually impaired people and with other disabilities in the country.
However, his organisation is currently using World Health Organisation statistics, which says Malawi has 170,000 visually impaired people.