Eight-year-old Henry Naluso of Group Village Head Chinyama in Mulanje neither sits nor goes to school. He is always in his motherâ€™s care because he is disabled and has no wheelchair.
The mother, Cecilia Simon, 30, cannot afford a wheelchair and his daily needsâ€”she is poor and jobless. To make matters worse, her husband divorced her when she gave birth to Henry.
An encounter with Henry tells stories of dire poverty, stigma and malnutrition.
Chances of his being educated are now becoming slim because he cannot walk nor sit on his own.
“I do not want to force him to sleep. Having to look after him means I hardly have time to cultivate my garden. As a result, we do not have enough food,” says Simon.
Henry is the only disabled out of her three children. She says a wheelchair and facilities for children with disabilities would enable Henry to get an education.
“Sending him to school would enable me to cultivate my garden,” says Simon.
Human rights and education activists argue that if a child with a disability is unable to go to school or to learn and develop to his or her full potential, it is not the child at fault; rather, the education system that does not cater for his or her needs.
Simon confesses, she has braved stigma from some members of society since the divorce.
Surveys by Malawi Council for the Handicapped (Macoha) show that public views on disability are often rooted in the wrong belief that somehow, disability reflects a shortcoming on the individual or the family.
However, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child both contain articles on the obligation of States such as Malawi to ensure that all children with disabilities enjoy equal rights as other children and to promote their best interests.
With Parliament finally passing the Disability Bill into law after eight years of lobbying, children such as Henry can now afford a smile in that their plight would be reduced. The new law is to ensure that children with disabilities can finally receive the protection, education, care and access to services that they deserve.
Thom Munthali, director of administration at Mulanje District Council, says there are many problems that children with disabilities face, hence projects by Plan Malawi in the district are meaningful in addressing such challenges.
“However, there is clearly a need for a change of mindset. We need to see disability as not a shortcoming of the individual, but rather a failure of the family, community and society to meet that individualâ€™s special needs,” he says.
Malawi commemorated the Day of the African Child under the theme â€˜The Rights of Children with Disabilities: The Duty to Protect, Respect, Promote and Fulfilâ€™ at a national event in Mzimba to raise awareness on how to care for children with disabilities.
The Day of the African Child was set aside by the United Nations after the 1976 Soweto uprising in which 10 000 high school students, angry at being forced to learn in Afrikaans, seen as the language of apartheid in South Africa, took to the streets in a peaceful protest.
Plan Malawi, therefore, hosted a similar ceremony at Chinyama Primary School grounds in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabuka in Mulanje with a focus of children with disabilities.
Assistant programmes manager for Plan Malawi Daniel Kapatuka said many parents do not know where to take children with disabilities for education and assistance.
“Our core value is to sensitise community structures so that such children participate in different activities,” Kapatuka said.
Plan Malawi representatives in the district have since underscored the need for child protection officers and organisations that deal in children with disabilities to lock horns for the benefit of the children.
“Our duty is to sensitise the public to own the project to alleviate the plight of children with disabilities. Plan Malawi will also continue with child protection partnership programmes in order to familiarise communities on the rights of disabled children,” says Kapatuka.
According to Unicef, although the 2008 Census estimates that half a million Malawians have a disability, they do not know what proportion of these are children.
To this effect, Unicef is to conduct a study with government to see how many children live with disabilities in Malawi, what services are available to them, and the needs of children living with a disabled parent or caregiver.
Unicef representative in Malawi Carrie Auer said the study will come up with recommendations on actions to broaden access to services by children with disabilities, improve their care and safety, and reduce stigma and discrimination.