The World Youth Skills Day today requires decision-makers to take stock of how they are investing in the bulging population. ALBERT SHARRA explores how the country’s single most important investment is failing young Malawians with disabilities.
When President Peter Mutharika moved the Department of Youth to the Ministry of Labour and Manpower Development, line minister, Henry Mussa, said he was all smiles. In an interview, Mussa sounded happy that “the vital service and an age group which needs it most were finally under one roof”.
He said: “When we talk about manpower development, there is no group that needs it more than the youth as most of them resort to alcoholism, crime and other undesirable lifestyles due to lack of skills. This is why the President is promoting technical colleges for job creation and poverty alleviation.”
Skills development have become a national catchphrase as the youth comprise the majority of the country’s population. Almost three in every four Malawians are said to be under 30—and the minister estimates nearly two million Malawians are “loafing with education certificates in their pockets” as almost 150 000 learners leaving the country’s secondary schools every year access tertiary education, including universities and technical colleges.
Shortage of openings is one of the reason the country is experiencing massive youth unemployment.
The opening of 10 community technical colleges has earned government global acclaim, with United Nations country representative Mia Seppo terming it a vital step in ensuring the youth walk free from depending on aging folk to become a powerhouse of national development. She calls this investment “harnessing the population dividend”, a transformation of the youth from a national burden to movers of the economy.
Speaking when Mutharika launched the community colleges initiative at Ngala in Karonga two years ago, Mzimba North Agnes Nyalonje, the deputy leader of the Education Committtee of Parliament, said it was exciting government had started doing what it should have done shortly after independence in 1964.
“At last, government is doing the right thing,” she said. “What we have been doing for over 50 years is blaming the youth for not doing what we haven’t taught them in the first place.”
But is the country finally doing the right thing to uplift the youth with disabilities to become self-reliant citizens just when most of them end up joining beggars on the streets?
Enrolment figures confirm how the country’s education system, including the newly opened technical colleges, keep letting down Malawians with disabilities.
Only five trainees out of 958 in 10 community colleges are people with disabilities, says Ministry of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development spokesperson Symon MBvundula. This contradicts principles of equality enshrined in the country’s Constitution and the Disability Act.
In fact, the colleges are no-go zones for people with visual and hearing impairments.
“We have the desire, but we don’t have the capacity,” he says.
The absence of facilities to enhance the teaching and learning of people with disability points to exclusion of the special needs’ minority from a life-changing opportunity they need.
Harrison Mwale, one of the three learners with disability at Mponela Community College in Dowa, believes the youth with disabilities are destined to become beggars unless training institutions are free from the gaps that make skills development almost unattainable for them.
“It takes willingness of decision-makers to change lives of disadvantaged groups. My future would have been shaky if the President did not insist on opening technical colleges,” says the trainee, who uses a wheelchair having survived polio.
The trainee from poor background dropped out of school after sitting the Junior Certificate of Education (JCE).
“My guardians could not afford secondary school fees, so it was obvious they wouldn’t afford private colleges,” Mwale explains.
At worst, being a person with disability meant he could not join his peers who embrace bicycle taxi as an income generating activity when they quit school.
With the community colleges’ tuition fees pegged at K3 000 per term, he is back in school—studying tailoring at Mponela which offers 93 young Malawians vocational courses ranging from carpentry to plumbing, brick laying as well as welding and fabrication.
The community colleges are expected to boost access to technical, entrepreneurial and vocational education and training (Tevet).
With just seven national technical colleges, the country is the lowest ranked in terms of access to Tevet in the Southern Africa Development |Community (Sadc).
The Tevet Authority (Teveta) reportedly receives over 10 000 applications every year, but only enrols about 2 000 due to lack of space.
The World Youths Skills Day today offers the country a chance to rethink its fidelity towards skills development to improve lives and employment of the youth.
The International Centre for Evidence in Disability rates almost 15 000 children in the country potentially disabled.
Teveta spokesperson Lewis Msasa is not surprised by the inequality.
He finds it “discouraging” as the authority wants the learners with disability to account for 30 in every 100 enrolled—a quota seldom met by female trainees.
“It is a problem we have tried to solve, but we are still struggling to increase enrolment of trainees with disability. We have deliberate measures, including bursaries and lower pass marks during interviews, but we are failing to meet our expectations” says Msasa.
Civil Society Education Network (Cesc) executive director Benedicto Kondowe finds it unacceptable that learners with physical challenges constitute one in 191 learners in community colleges while government preaches disability is not inability.
“What are we trying to achieve? The environment is not favourable and their benefits are minimal,” says Kondowe. n