Today is World Human Rights Day. In commemorating the day, FATSANI GUNYA looks at how government offices at Capital Hill in Lilongwe are frustrating people with disabilities from enjoying their human rights.
It was around eight in the morning and in an hour’s time, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) headquarters was to host the Federation of Disability Organisation of Malawi (Fedoma).
Fedoma was donating to government various devices and equipment for disabled learners from Mchinji, Lilongwe and Salima districts.
The beneficiaries, with various forms of disabilities, could be noted around the magnificent government building.
But for a distant observer they all looked lost. They crammed the ministerial car park.
Minutes ticked by, slowly evolving into hours. The invited media, too, could not help but wonder if they had been taken to the right assignment. And then it struck 10 am.
“There has been a change of plans. The function is going to be held elsewhere, and not the conference room as earlier scheduled,” announced a MoEST staff.
Immediately, the people that had gathered at the entrance of the ministry’s headquarters were led to the new venue. However, another 30 minutes passed with most guests standing, anxiously waiting for officials who had gone to get chairs.
Twelve-year-old Salome Ndovi, who had come for a wheelchair on the day, could not support her frail legs for long. Like most of her colleagues, she made herself comfortable on the lawns, helped by her teacher from Kalambo Primary School in the city, Caroline Mwale.
As minutes passed, so did the sun scale up its scorch. There was no tent erected for the function; just trees around.
Nita Hanjahanja, board chairperson for Fedoma, could not help it.
“Let me start by registering our disappointment as people with disabilities before we go into the other formalities,” she began.
She blamed government for sidelining people with disabilities and ignoring their needs. She added government is selective in the execution of its duties towards the public, adding those with disabilities are usually on the receiving end.
Said Hanjahanja: “As you can see, this is just a make shift venue for our function. If this function was not for us, some tents would have been erected for us to have shelter.
“How can we flee in case of some bee attack or, God forbid, a snake? We are rendered helpless in such situations and that’s a shame for government to do this to us in this age and era, especially where it [government] continues to preach human rights and yet fails to live up to the same.”
It was later understood that the ministry had decided to shift the venue for the function owing to the physical nature of the offices, claiming their guests would have had challenges reaching the conference room as they had to use the stairs in the absence of an elevator.
The building, just like most government offices at Capital Hill, is not disability-friendly as they, among others, lack elevators with only staircases linking one floor to the other. Not even special pavements for those on wheelchairs.
Director for primary school education at MoEST Joseph Chimombo said it is a pity that Fedoma has had to rebuke ‘us over the matter when we could have done better ourselves’.
“No explanation can now justify why this is the situation at all government’s offices. However, we have taken note of their observation and I’m sure this eye-opener will be responded to with the urgency it deserves.”
Executive director of Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) Timothy Mtambo concurred with Fedoma’s outbursts, saying human rights should not be so selective.
“Human rights are not earned. It’s not an issue of privileges or lack of. They are universal and they should be enjoyed by all at same wavelengths,” he said.
He faulted government on the Fedoma incident, saying the ministry would have perhaps settled for a venue conducive to people with disabilities than was provided.
Minister of Transport and Public Works Francis Kasaila said there is a possibility to have government offices at Capital Hill reworked to ensure increased access.
He also admitted that most offices are not disability-friendly, something he attributed to the fact that they were constructed when human rights were not that promoted.
Moving ahead, Kasaila said his ministry has embarked on making all new construction projects in the country to be disability-friendly.
Hanjahanja, however, dismissed Kasaila’s assertion that Capital Hill was constructed when human rights were not promoted.
“That’s actually an insult to Malawians. Are we saying the country didn’t have people with disabilities, then? Or, someone is trying to imply that the architects never thought people with disabilities would ever rise to work in top public service positions? It’s not like government has to do it for us alone. Anyone can fall victim to disabilities,” she said. n