By Foster Benjamin, Contributor:
Mwandida Khanje has had things tough for a larger part of her life. The 38-year-old single mother of three from Mulanje District is often confined to a battered, old wheelchair or a rugged mat in her sister’s rickety house.
Her house, like several others in Makaula Village in the border district, was razed down by hailstorms that visited the area of Senior Chief Mabuka four years ago.
Those around her continue to turn a blind eye to her plight. She has endured discrimination, because of her condition, since birth.
Last year, she was excluded from the list of beneficiaries of the Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP) which targets the ultra poor and other vulnerable populations.
She recounts the misfortune: “I initially thought I would be one of the beneficiaries. I was hopeful but it was never to be.”
The Village Development Committee (VDC) did not register her. She wonders why as she sits on the veranda of her house which overlooks a verdant tea plantation.
“They say the programme targets vulnerable people. Am I not vulnerable enough? What kind of vulnerability are they looking for?” she queries.
Four years ago, when she was living in a crumbling house, she approached then Mulanje District Commissioner, Jack Ngulube, who promised iron sheets for her good shelter.
The promise has turned into a controversial act.
Khanje claims Ngulube lived up to his pledge but that VDC members pounced on it and shared the iron sheets among themselves.
“I wanted to confront the Village Head on the issue but I chose not to. I was very afraid,” Khanje recalls.
Village Head Makaula dismisses assertions that the iron sheets came for the physically challenged woman. He further claims he never knew Ngulube visited her.
Khanje has let that pass but her constant worry is where to get her daily bread. She has no sustainable means of survival. Her on-and-off mandasi business is failing to earn enough for her.
Sometimes, she is engaged by her elder sister to sell local spirits, kachasu, a trade she admits does not even help her make ends meet.
Globally, people with disabilities continue to be looked down upon and regarded as society’s outcasts.
Nitta Hanjahanja, who is chairperson of Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma), says women with disabilities are subject to prejudice and ignorance from their families and society as a whole.
“Negative attitudes towards women with disabilities ironically start right from their homes and spread to communities,” Hanjahanja states.
Khanje’s case provides a perfect case in point.
The Fedoma chairperson adds: “Some communities discriminate against us to the extent that they deny us subsidised farm inputs. They say since we have disabilities, we cannot farm, forgetting that disability is not inability. Give us agricultural inputs and you will see us farming and enhancing food security at household level.”
In her life, she has come to realise that women with disabilities are seen as helpless, dependent and passive.
“It is a very wrong perception. We are capable of doing great things just like anyone else. We also have our own abilities,” she says.
However, Hanjahanja concedes that more to be done to change the status quo critical being raising awareness about the abilities of people with disabilities.
Research shows that there is still low level of awareness on the discrimination front. Political will, it is reported, is largely discounted in most disability rights movements.
However, organisations such as Disabled Women in Africa (Diwa) are actively championing the rights of women with disabilities.
For instance, in Lilongwe’s Traditional Authorities Tsabango, Kalolo and Njewa, women with disabilities have been empowered in various aspects of their lives including the capacity to demand social services from duty bearers.
Rosaliya Phiri, a leader of one group that is benefiting from Diwa’s programmes, brags that there is a lot of improvement in terms of how they are treated within their communities.
“We are no longer being marginalised when it comes to safety net programmes. We are benefitting from [SCTP] and food-for-work programmes,” she says
Still, others such as Khanje, continue to struggle for justice in a country that claims to abhor discrimination of any kind as reflected in the Constitution.
Diwa executive director, Rachel Kachaje, wants interventions directed at vulnerable women to be widened so that no one is left behind.
But that, too, demands more resources with which to reach those in places hard to reach.
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