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Fighting for Rights of People with Disabilities in Malawi


In Malawi, people with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor. Statistics indicate that many of them probably live on less than a dollar a day. That’s the case in many other African countries as well. While many have tried but failed to bring relief to the handicapped, one wheel chair-bound activist, Mussa Chiwaula, has succeeded.
Lameck Masina reports from Blantyre.

In Malawi, people with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor. Statistics indicate that many of them probably live on less than a dollar a day. That’s the case in many other African countries as well. While many have tried but failed to bring relief to the handicapped, one wheel chair-bound activist, Mussa Chiwaula, has succeeded. Some Malawians call them “opunduka” and “odwala” – the crippled and the sick. At best, they’re considered the silent recipients of public charity. One parliamentarian called some, like activist Mussa Chiwaula, “a troublesome lot.”

In general, he was referring to the handicapped – an estimated 4.6 million people in Malawi. The 52-year-old Chiwaula has been confined to a wheelchair since he was four years old. He was struck by polio while his family was living in Zimbabwe.

Today, he’s the executive director of the NGO the Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi, an organization he and his colleagues founded in 1999 to promote the rights of people with disabilities.

Since then Chiwaula has been lobbying the government to help people with disabilities improve their lives and contribute to the development of the country.

In 2004, the Malawi-based Human Rights Consultative Committee awarded him recognition for his efforts. He said the award was a reflection of his own self-confidence. He says “I believe in myself. I don’t have time to pity myself. I forget that I have a disability, because I look at myself as somebody who is just like any other person and somebody who has got a lot of potential. And I think I have proved to many people that people with disabilities are able to make it in life.”

One of his notable achievements came after he lobbied the government to curtail all forms of discrimination against people with disabilities. The result was a government-endorsed policy called Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities. The policy promotes equal opportunity for persons with disabilities and their full participation in all social, economic, political and cultural activities. As a result, he says the policy has led to an increasing number of people with disabilities being employed in both the public and private sectors. But Chiwaula says the policy, while well meaning, needs reinforcement. This, because there are still some who are ignoring the initiative.

He says that “The policy without legislation can not give you the best results that are required. That’s [just] paper. We need to have supporting legislation to give the policy some teeth so that it becomes more effective"

In this regard, he says, his organization has come out with a draft bill that was sent to the Parliament three years ago. If passed, the bill will protect people with disabilities against all forms of stigmatization and discrimination. Chiwaula also helped lead a successful effort to encourage the media to avoid terms that people with disabilities find offensive, such as “disabled people” and “the blind.” They prefer “people with disabilities,” and “people with visual impairments.” His organization is running awareness campaigns encouraging primary school teachers to integrate children with disabilities in school activities.

Chiwaula was born to Malawian migrant workers who worked in Zimbabwe. He applauds the country for its treatment of people with disabilities. “When I was in Zimbabwe, my school fees were paid for by the government. So this is something that I would want to encourage the government to do here, so that they invest a lot of money in the education of children with disabilities.” He says.

But the development did not put him off. He is now studying for a degree in public administration with the South Africa-based Institute for Administration and Commerce.

A father of six, he is married to a woman whom he describes as a source of his happiness. He says he feels none of the inferiority that prevents many people with disabilities from marrying able-bodied partners. “I was very much against the idea of me getting married to somebody with a disability. I am not saying that it’s wrong for somebody with disability to fall in love with someone with disability -- I think it’s a question of love. But in my opinion, I think that you can build integration if we got married with people without disabilities.” He adds.

Chiwaula says being disabled has taught him that achievements come only with a fight. He says he appreciates the support of other people who are willing to go the extra mile to help people with disabilities. But he concedes that it takes time to completely change traditional views.

He says that " We are dealing with attitudes that are so entrenched, that have been there for generations of years. So as an organization we know that it is going to take along time for them to change. But, we are very optimistic because so far we have seen some change in terms of how [the public looks] at people with disabilities now [compared to] 20 years ago.”

Chiwaula says disability has given him strengths many others do not have, such as physical and mental resilience. Physical confinement has not limited his curiosity or spirituality. The slim and bespectacled activist says he’s a Christian who loves reading books on the world’s various religions, art, and development issues. He’s also a painter whose works have been shown in Malawi, Canada, the Republic of China, Australia and South Africa. He says his greatest challenge is discrimination.

But instead of getting angry, he takes action. He says he was refused entrance to the University of Malawi (Chancellor College) university on the grounds that it did not have “proper facilities” to accommodate him. “It was painful,” he said, “ to see some of my friends proceed – some of whom had not done better than me.”

His solution was to enroll in correspondence courses, or “private study,” with the Malawi College of Distance Education – in which he earned his “A-levels” which are used to gain access to some advanced degrees. Afterwards, he enrolled for a degree in public administration in South Africa.

Chiwaula says he’s not interested in party politics, which he says limits one’s independence by forcing allegiance to the ideals of a party. But he may be interested in doing more consultancy work, which would take him and his blue wheel chair around Africa as a proponent of reforms for the disabled.

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