Malawi: Looking at rights through the eyes of a visually impaired person

Date: December 14, 2015
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Lilongwe, 14 December: Last week the world and Malawi commemorated International Human Rights Day: a time, among others, to do some soul searching on the rights of people with disabilities.

I am visually impaired. In the early 1990s I enrolled with Montfort Demonstration School for both my pre-school and primary school education. During the pre-school age, I played with toys with my fellow kindergarteners. Getting initiated into braille writing and reading proved to be another joyous moment.

Joining sighted persons at primary school had its challenges as we all had to get acclimatised to one another. I sailed through the first year of primary school with everything academic in braille. But the dawn of democracy ushered a new curriculum with only none-braille materials.

I had to become heavily dependent on sighted people to dictate written texts from the chalk board and books. Yet I had to write the same examinations as sighted people. Life went on like this as I continued climbing the academic ladders.

In 2001 when I got selected to Blantyre Secondary School for my secondary education, I thought things will be better but both writing and learning materials in braille remained scanty. The then Minister of Education Yusuf Mwawa promised us milk and honey but the more he promised change, the more things remained the same.

I continued dreaming in colour, despite the darkness imposed by my impairment. I wrote the Malawi School Certificate of Education examination in 2004 and passed with flying colours (two credits and four distinctions).

The 2004 records at Blantyre Secondary School have it that out of the 178 pupils who sat for the Malawi School Certificate of Education, I was the only person who got selected to pursue higher education in the University of Malawi.

In my time at university, I met people with different disabilities, who made up about one percent of the student population. I recall Brijet Banda, a disabled young woman being denied approval to enrol at the College of Medicine on grounds of her being too short and allegedly not being able to manage some practicals in the laboratory.

Apart from the visually impaired, we also had people with hearing impairments; albinos; the physical challenged and others. Having no ramps, no sign language interpreters or elevators in places like the library made life hard for the disabled.

Despite all the barriers, I am mindful that as a man with a disability, I am relatively privileged.

According to the World Report on Disability, gender differences in favour of males are considerable. A reported 50.6% of disabled boys complete primary education compared with 41.3% disabled girls. 52.8% of disabled men get jobs compared to 19.6% of disabled women.

Women and girls with disability face a higher risk of violence than disabled boys and men. They risk violence and abuse by a caregiver, who is also responsible for providing them daily assistance and general upkeep. There are accounts of disabled married women whom have been abused by drunken husbands for the mere fact that they are disabled.

An added barrier for abused disabled women is a lack of access to vital support services to report, recover and escape violence and abuse. Intellectually disabled woman and girls often fail to seek redress for sexual violence and other abuses as they are deemed, “none credible witnesses”.

Articles 15 and 16 for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) protects the rights of women and girls with disabilities from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and from … violence and abuse.

The domestication of the CRDP through the Malawi Disability Act in 2012 remains a source of hope for people with disabilities. But there is still a yawning gap between the laws and the daily reality.

(Funghai Mutsinze, is a visually impaired young man pursuing a Masters of Arts programme in Political science at Chancellor College. Currently working as Producer, Presenter and announcer at Radio Maria Malawi. This article is written in his personal capacity as part of a special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism being produced by the Gender Links New Service)

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