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Disability and povertyA global challenge$

Arne H. Eide and Benedicte Ingstad

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781847428851

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847428851.001.0001

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“No disabled can go here…”: how education affects disability and poverty in Malawi

“No disabled can go here…”: how education affects disability and poverty in Malawi

(p.71) Four “No disabled can go here…”: how education affects disability and poverty in Malawi
Disability and poverty

Stine Hellum Braathen

Mitch E. Loeb

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

One of the main predictors of poverty becomes the level of and access to education. It is generally believed that having an education can lift individuals and their families out of poverty, while the lack of an education merely entrenches the individual in a perpetual state of poverty. This chapter focuses specifically on the challenges and obstacles faced by people with disabilities in Malawi in obtaining an education. It draws on the results from three studies conducted there on topics of living conditions for people with disabilities. The first study was a quantitative national representative survey of living conditions among people with activity limitations. The second study was a qualitative study concerning albinism. The third study focused on living conditions for women with disabilities.

Keywords:   poverty alleviation, Malawi, living conditions, albinism, disabled women

Education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery…. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor. (Horace Mann)1

Poverty is often conceptualised as resulting from a poor economy or as a lack of personal goods and material wealth. Recent years, however, have witnessed a shift in the parameters that define poverty as well as an overall approach to poverty. Wolfenson and Bourguignon (2004) describe this as a shift from poverty defined and measured by the level of income or consumption, to the notion of poverty as the lack of access to food, shelter, education, employment, healthcare and more. This reallocation of the poverty concept is in agreement with the description of poverty put forward by The World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen 1995 (UN, 1995), highlighting the importance of addressing both economic/material poverty (described as ‘absolute poverty’) and social exclusion (described as ‘overall poverty’) in the attempt to achieve the United Nations' (UN) aim of halving world poverty by 2015 (UN, 1995; Townsend, 2006).

Thus, one of the main predictors of poverty becomes the level of and access to education. It is generally believed that having an education can lift individuals and their families out of poverty, while the lack of an education merely entrenches the individual in a perpetual state of poverty (see, for example, Colclough, 1982; Lewin, 1993; Kadzamira and Rose, 2003). Hence, the Government of Malawi (Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture) emphasises the importance of an educated population for Malawi's development and in an attempt to alleviate poverty. Research from Malawi and other countries in southern Africa have documented that people with disabilities and their families in these countries have poorer living conditions than people without disabilities, and problems include those of economic and material poverty, low levels of participation in education and employment and poorer social and health conditions (Eide et al, 2003a, 2003b; Loeb and Eide, 2004; Eide and Loeb, 2006; Eide and Kamaleri, 2009).

(p.72) This chapter focuses specifically on the challenges and obstacles faced by people with disabilities in Malawi in obtaining an education. It draws on the results from three studies conducted in Malawi on topics of living conditions for people with disabilities. The first study was a quantitative national representative survey of living conditions among people with activity limitations (Loeb and Eide, 2004). The second study was a qualitative study concerning albinism (Braathen and Ingstad, 2006). The third study, also a qualitative study, focused on living conditions for women with disabilities (Kvam and Braathen, 2006, 2008; Braathen and Kvam, 2008). The analysis of education and poverty in this chapter is based on a complementary and supplementary analysis of the results from these three studies.


The Republic of Malawi is a democratic country, located in southern central Africa, with a population of about 12.8 million people. On the Human Development Index Malawi is ranked as the 13th poorest country in the world (UNDP, 2007/08). Malawi's economy is predominantly agricultural, and approximately 90% of the population live in rural areas (World Factbook, 2008). The school system in Malawi consists of primary school (standard 1–8), secondary school (form 1–4) and university (four years). Primary education has been free since 1994, but students have to pay school fees to attend secondary school and university. In addition they have to pay for school uniforms, books and stationary at all levels of education (SDNP, 2005). According to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Indicators (UN, 2008), the total net enrolment ratio for Malawi in primary education for both boys and girls in 2004 was 96.1% (93.8% for boys and 98.4% for girls), while the percentage of pupils starting standard 1 who reach last grade of primary school in 2004 was 33.6% (32.1% for girls and 35.2% for boys). Primary school completion rates are higher for boys than for girls, as reflected in the 2004 data, which shows that the ratio of girls to boys was 1.02 in primary level enrolment, 0.81 in secondary level enrolment and 0.54 in tertiary level enrolment (UN, 2008). This is also reflected in the literacy rates that are 76.1% for men and 49.8% for women (GAIA, 2009).

Primary education still remains unaffordable, inaccessible (schools are far apart and school buildings are inaccessible to many) and inadequate (poor standards of teaching and teaching materials) for many children in Malawi (National Economic Council, 2000). The national education goal for Malawi, as spelt out in Vision 2020, includes increased access to education and improved special education (National Economic Council, 2000). Furthermore, Malawi has established and recently adopted a national disability policy, which has as one of its priority areas to ensure the equal right and opportunity to education for people with disabilities (MSDPWD, 2006). Malawi currently has four special schools for the deaf and two special schools for the blind. In public schools, as well as in the special schools, there is a lack of special education teachers and adequate teaching material, especially in Braille, large print, hearing aids, computers, mobility devices, etc. (p.73) Furthermore, schools and public institutions are very often inaccessible to people with mobility limitations, or people who are dependent on wheelchairs. There is a general lack of resources for special needs education in Malawi (Ministry of Education, Government of Malawi).

Studies from 11 developing countries around the world have shown that children and young people with disabilities are less likely to start school and often have lower levels of education. The correlation between disability and poor education outcomes is often larger than those associated with other characteristics, such as gender, rural residence or low economic status (Filmer, 2005). In South Africa, Howell (2006) argues that attendance and completion of higher education among people with disabilities is affected by attitudes that ‘reinforce the notion that disabled students do not have a future in higher education and thus it is not in their own interests or in the interests of the school to support that career path’ (Howell, 2006, pp 165–6).

Research has shown that people with disabilities in several African countries have lower levels of participation in education compared to their non-disabled peers. In addition, the studies from Malawi, on which this chapter is based, showed that people with disabilities face discrimination and stigmatisation because of their disability, often due to lack of awareness about disability in their society in general (Loeb and Eide, 2004; Braathen and Ingstad, 2006; Braathen and Kvam, 2008).


Living Conditions Survey 2003/04

Beginning in 2003, the Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (FEDOMA) in collaboration with local partners (Centre for Social Research [CSR] at the University of Malawi) and international partners (SINTEF Health Research and the Norwegian Federation of Organisations of Disabled People [FFO]) undertook a national representative survey of living conditions among people with disabilities in Malawi.

A national, representative sample was chosen for this survey. The sampling frame used for the survey was obtained from the national Central Statistical Office developed from the (most recent) 1998 Census of population and housing. For the purposes of this survey, enumeration areas (EAs) constituted the ultimate primary sampling units.

The survey was designed to cover 157 EAs (stratified according to urban/rural location) across the three provinces and to provide a cross-sectional sample of approximately 3,000 non-institutionalised, private households in Malawi. Details of the survey design and methodology are available in Loeb and Eide (2004) and at www.sintef.no/lc.

A total of 3,058 households were included in the final sample, 1,521 (49.7%) representing households with a disabled family member and 1,537 (50.3%) representing ‘control’ households without a disabled family member. The sample (p.74) included 15,364 individuals or approximately 0.12% of the Malawian population; 1,623 individuals (11%) of the sample population were identified as having a disability.

The heads of households selected for inclusion in the survey were interviewed regarding the living conditions of the households, including housing standards, composition of the households as well as the education and literacy, economic activity and disability status of individual family members. Subsequently, those individuals identified as having a disability (or a proxy) were interviewed using a separate detailed questionnaire to elicit further details of their experiences as a person with a disability, including details of their activity limitations and participation restrictions, experienced environmental barriers, their awareness, need and receipt of services, their experiences with assistive devices and technology, accessibility in the home and surroundings, inclusion in family and social life and their health and general well-being. Neighbour households without disabled members were interviewed as controls.

Using a methodology proposed by Filmer and Pritchett (2001), an asset index was calculated as a proxy for wealth using principal component analysis (PCA). This index is composed of 18 indicators linked to the possession of certain household or individual items, characteristics of the household dwelling and household ownership. These indicators were determined to be culturally appropriate and contextually based to the Malawian situation. Subsequently, three distinct asset groups were defined based on the first factor of the PCA.

Ten teams implemented the entire survey; each team was composed of a supervisor, four to five enumerators and a driver. In addition, a field coordinator, assisted by study investigators from FEDOMA and CSR, facilitated the survey.

Albinism in Malawi Study 2004

This study used qualitative research methods, individual in-depth interviews and participant observation. The aim was to gain detailed and in-depth knowledge about the lives of people with albinism in Malawi, and to learn from them, first hand, about their views, knowledge and experiences. In this regard, the topic of education for people with albinism was raised on several occasions. The study population included people with albinism as well as their family members. An interview guide was used in all the interviews. This covered the informant's background and current situation, knowledge about albinism, and stigmatisation, discrimination and violation of people with albinism. The fieldwork took place over a six-month period, from June to December 2004.

There were 25 informants in the study, comprising 11 people with albinism, 11 mothers of children with albinism, two siblings of people with albinism and the leader of The Albino Association of Malawi (interviewed about the situation for people with albinism in Malawi in general, and not about himself personally). All the informants lived in either Blantyre district (urban) or Mangochi district (p.75) (mostly rural). (See also Braathen and Ingstad, 2006, for more information about the study design.)

Women and Living Conditions Study 2006

The data collection methods in this study were qualitative; more specifically, one focus group discussion with representatives from seven disabled people's organisations (DPOs), one focus group discussion with four hearing impaired women and 19 qualitative individual interviews with women with disabilities. Criteria for inclusion for informants were that they had a hearing, visual, physical or intellectual impairment or albinism. The informants were 18 years or older, and in cases where the girl with the disability was younger than 18, her mother was the informant for the interview. Informants were selected by the local DPOs. The study took place in Blantyre district, which is an urban district and the commercial centre of Malawi. The theme for the interviews was the situation and experience for women with disabilities in Malawi compared to women without disabilities and men with and without disabilities. Education for women with disabilities was a particular focus. The data collection took place over a one-month period, from June to July 2006, and was conducted in collaboration with FEDOMA and the organisation Disabled Women in Development (DIWODE).

There were 23 informants in this study – Malawian women with disabilities, aged 18–61. Nine informants had physical disabilities, four had albinism, four had a visual impairment, four had a hearing impairment and two had an intellectual impairment. (See also Kvam and Braathen, 2006, 2008 and Braathen and Kvam, 2008 for more information about the study design.)


Living Conditions Survey 2003/04

Table 4.1 below reports the scoring factors derived from the PCA of 18 variables used for the composition of the asset index. Each asset variable takes the value 0 or 1 for all individual or household goods. The weights are thus easy to interpret: an increase of 1 changes the index by the ratio of the scoring factor divided by the standard deviation. For instance, a household that owns a radio has an asset index higher by 0.53. Some items are common and have little affect, or even a negative affect, on the asset index. Therefore, their impact on the index is limited. Other items are uncommon and indicate a higher standard of living, such as refrigerators, which increase the asset index by 4.12. Furthermore, individuals were assigned to one of three categories of material wealth according to the index value: the lowest 40% were placed into the ‘poorest’ group, the middle 40% were placed into the ‘middle’ group and the upper 20% were placed in the ‘richest’ group. This categorisation follows the differentiation used by Filmer and Pritchett (2001). The (p.76)

Table 4.1: Scoring factors and means for variables included in the PCA of the household portion of the Malawi survey

Malawi: n=3,046


Scoring factors



Scoring factor/SD




Own a sewing machine








Own a cell phone








Own a refrigerator








Own a bicycle








Own a motor bike








Own a motor vehicle








Own a radio/tape player








Own a television








Drinking water from well








Drinking water from pipe








Drinking water from open source








Main cooking by biomass








Main light by electric








Toilet facility flush toilet








Toilet facility latrine toilet








No toilet facility








Dwelling of all high-quality materialsa








Dwelling of all low-quality materialsb








Asset index




Notes: (a) High-quality materials include: windows of glass; floors of concrete/cement; roof of asbestos/iron sheets or tiles/shingles; walls of concrete or bricks.

(b) Low-quality materials include: windows (none); floors of mud; roof of paper/plastic; walls of poles/mud.

difference in the average index between the poorest and the wealthiest group is 9.92, illustrating a different level of wealth inequalities between social groups. Turning to poverty (as measured by the asset index) and disability, we found that there was not a significant difference in mean asset index between disabled and non-disabled households in Malawi (see Table 4.2). (This finding will be explored further in the Discussion later.)

For the purpose of the analyses of access to education, data were restricted to the group of family members who were five years or older at the time of interview.

Table 4.2: Mean asset index by household disability status





With a disability



Without a disability





(p.77) These individuals were further categorised into three groups representing three ‘generations’ of Malawians: those aged 5–18, representing the portion of the population that is currently of school age; those aged 19–35, representing young adults beyond school age; and those aged 36 or older, as the mature or older generation among family members. Among the 12,532 respondents, 49% (6,089) were aged 5–18, 28% (3,515) were aged 19–35 and 23% (2,928) were aged 36 or older. Both genders were equally represented, with 51% female and 49% male. A total of 1,415 respondents (11.3%) were classified as having a disability according to the screening criteria established for this survey (Loeb and Eide, 2004, p 56). Disability was equally prevalent among males and females; however, fewer of the younger group aged 5–18 had a disability (7.3%) compared to the young adults 19–35 (9.3%) or older adults 36+ (22.0%) (χ2 = 448.9, df = 2, p〈0.001). Information on school attendance was available for 12,379 of these household members; overall, 2,433 (19.7%) of these individuals had never attended school. Analysis below focuses on this group of non-school attendees and how age, gender, rural/urban locality and disability may impact on school attendance.

Among all age groups combined, those with a disability are less likely to have attended school (34.8%) than those without a disability (17.7%). The same trend is apparent in each of the age cohorts, although there is a clear decline in nonattendance over time. A substantial decline in non-attendance was observed between the oldest and middle cohorts, with relative stability in non-attendance rates between the youngest and middle cohorts. Overall, females were less likely to attend school (23.5%) than males (15.7%); however, that trend appears to be changing. Among the oldest cohort, female non-attendees amounted to 47% compared to 23% for males, and among the youngest cohort the respective numbers were 13% for females and 16% for males. The same pattern is observed among those with and without a disability, although the figure for those with a disability remains inflated.

Regardless of disability status, those living in a rural setting are, on average, three times more likely not to have attended school (21.4% versus 7.5%). Again, those with a disability are clearly disadvantaged: among those with a disability, 16% of urban dwellers had not attended school compared to 38% of those in rural areas; and among those without a disability, the figures were 6% and 19% respectively. The same pattern is also reflected here in the age cohorts, again with correspondingly lower non-attendance in the youngest cohort and highest nonattendance among the oldest cohort.

Among the 433 individuals aged 5–18 who had a disability, 29% had never attended school according to the head of the household or primary responder to this portion of the questionnaire. When asked why they had not attended or left school, almost half (47% of the 62 respondents) claimed that it was because of their disability. Other reasons included not enough money (16%), lack of interest (18%) and illness (15%).

Under the circumstances described above, scholastic achievement, as measured by highest level of education achieved, is of particular interest. Given the (p.78) opportunity to attend school (that is, among those who had attended school at some stage) overall, those with disabilities perform at a level that is equal to those without a disability. This observation stands regardless of gender or urban/rural setting. There is a slight age effect, however, that would seem to indicate that, by age, those with disabilities have not attained the same level of education as those without disabilities.

Of the 1,415 individuals identified (through the Living Conditions Survey) as having a disability, 443 were in the age group 5–18, that is, currently of school age. A detailed disability survey was completed for 430 of this age group – either by the people with a disability themselves or by a proxy. These individuals are represented in the major impairment categories: visual (12.1%), hearing (26.3%), communication (6.1%), physical (30.1%) and intellectual/emotional (22.4%). Three per cent fell into a category defined as ‘other’.

This portion of the survey also included questions specific to education, access to education and educational services, with particular reference to the person with a disability.

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) (WHO, 2001) has been instrumental in directing the focus of the survey away from issues of the impairment and towards issues of capacity (activity limitation) and performance (participation restriction). A person's disability is as much informed by their underlying health condition as it is by the environment in which they live, that is, the barriers they face in social participation. In other words, a person with a physical impairment, for instance, who lives in a completely accommodating environment, would not experience disability in the same way or to the same extent as a person with the same impairment in a more inaccessible environment. (Here, environment is inclusive of the physical, social, personal and legislative.)

With respect to education, individuals were asked for a subjective, perceived assessment of difficulty in going to school and/or studying without the use of any personal or technical assistance (a measure of their capacity to attend school or to learn) and the subjective experience of problems associated with going to school and/or studying in the individual's current environment (a measure of their performance or ability to participate in education and to learn). The difference between these two measures may then be an indication of the effect of (all types of) environmental barriers. In addition to physical access barriers, these would include, among others, access to adapted educational materials, specially trained teachers and the attitudes of teachers, school authorities and classmates. Table 4.3 illustrates the variation in capacity and performance, as defined above, based on type of impairment. Focusing on those who experience severe difficulty or who are unable to attend school, it becomes apparent that those with communication impairments experience the highest degree of activity limitation (39%), followed by those with intellectual/emotional impairments (27%). About 20% of those with visual or hearing impairments and 15% of those with physical impairments experience great difficulty in attending school without assistance. (p.79)

Table 4.3: Experienced difficulty going to school and/or studying (capacity and performance) by type of impairment among children aged 5–18 with a disability

Capacity: activity limitation

Performance: participation restriction

Amount of difficulty

Amount of problem experienced

Type of impairment



Severe/unable to do it



Severe/unable to perform

















































Turning to problems attending school as experienced in their current environment (that is, with the full range of technical and/or personal assistance), the corresponding proportions of those who experience the greatest difficulty are: communication (23%), intellectual/emotional (18%), visual/hearing (10%) and physical (9%) impairment. While the proportion of those who experience problems remain quite high, they are lower than the corresponding figures for capacity above, and seem to indicate that in certain circumstances environment and/or personal factors aid the individual in being able to attend school.

Individuals were asked to provide their opinion on the need and provision of several public services, among them educational services (Table 4.4).2 Generally speaking, the majority of respondents (63%) were aware of the availability of educational services and about 64% claimed that they had a need for these services (between 54% and 69% depending on the type of impairment). However, only 14% had actually received the benefit of educational services. By examining the difference between stated need for service and receipt of service, it is possible to

Table 4.4: Experience with the provision of educational services by type of impairment among children aged 5–18 with a disability

Educational services

Type of impairment

Aware of















































Note: (a) Proportion of those who have received educational services, of those who have claimed that they have a need for such services.

(p.80) describe the gap in service delivery. The majority of those who claimed a need for an educational service had not received the service. Only 14% of those with visual impairments received educational services, while between 20% and 30% of those with other types of impairments claimed receipt of such services.

Looking at the asset index divided into the three asset groups defined earlier (poorest, middle, richest), and whether or not the child (aged 5–18) attended school, the results indicate that the better off (richest) among those with disabilities were more likely to attend school (see Table 4.5). While 87.3% of those children with disabilities in the richest asset group were attending or had finished school, school attendance in the middle and poorest groups were 65.1% and 69.2% respectively (p=0.002).

Table 4.5: Asset group by school attendance for children/youth aged 5–18 with a disability





School attendance









Never attended



























Chi square=12.7, df=2, p=0.002

Albinism in Malawi Study 2004

People with albinism have poor vision, and for many school children this creates significant challenges, as it can be very difficult for them to read what is written on the blackboard and in books. Visual aids are unavailable to most people in Malawi, and none of the informants in this study had eyeglasses. Some schools and teachers had made special considerations for these children, such as making sure that the lighting in the classroom was sufficient, allowing the children with albinism to sit close to the blackboard or transcribing for them on paper what they had written on the blackboard. These simple considerations can make school much easier for a child with albinism, but it requires something extra of the teacher, and it seemed that not many teachers made the extra effort. The informants reacted differently to the classroom situation in the absence of these considerations; some constantly walked to the front of the classroom to see the blackboard, some copied their friends' notes and one simply left school because the difficulties became too big to overcome. There are private schools that cater for children with a visual impairment. These schools, however, cost money, and are therefore unaffordable to most people in Malawi. One 27-year-old man had gone to a private school for the blind for five years, and he felt that he learned much more in that school than in the public school. Due to his visual impairment he felt it was better for him to study at a school where his fellow students were (p.81) all blind or visually impaired, and special considerations were made for them all. In public schools, where all the pupils could see, his visual impairment was always a problem and made learning more difficult for him, because the school would not make special considerations for just one blind student.

People with albinism have little or no pigment in their skin, which makes them extremely vulnerable to sunburn. All the informants in this study constantly got sunburnt, and only a few had access to, or the funds to buy, sunscreen lotion or long-sleeved clothing. School uniforms in Malawi are usually short-sleeved shirts and shorts, which presents a problem to children with albinism because they spend much of the school day playing outside, often in the sun. In addition, it is not unusual for school children in Malawi to walk long distances daily to and from school. The result of this exposure is sunburn. Some schools allow children with albinism to wear long-sleeved shirts, trousers and hats, while other schools force them to wear the standard school uniforms. As one mother of two children with albinism put it:

‘Nothing is done in school to help them protect the skin.’

The children, one boy who had finished standard 8 and a girl in standard 7, both wished to continue with their schooling beyond primary education, but had difficulties both with their eyesight and with money. Their mother – a widow, housewife and mother of six – was finding it difficult to get the money to pay for secondary education for her children.

The parents of a six-year-old boy with albinism had tried to register their son in nursery school, but were told that the school could not accept him because he had too many wounds and blisters (from the sun) on his body. They were told to:

‘… take him back home until those wounds are healed…., and maybe find somebody to help him to get him glasses or hats, or something.’

Due to lack of money in a family of nine children they were unable to buy sunscreen lotion to prevent sunburn, and glasses to help him with his vision.

One seven-year-old boy with albinism, living in Blantyre with his grandmother, had been rejected at birth by his father, and his mother was living somewhere else with his two half-siblings and their father, who was not the same father as the seven-year-old's. His father had rejected him because he did not think the albino child could be his. The 23-year-old mother said that she was bankrupt, and only the stepfather had a job that gave a little income to the family. She had been advised by doctors to buy long-sleeved clothing for her son, but she had not done so because they did not have any money. As a result the boy got sunburn when he was playing outside in the sun at school, on his way to and from school and after school. At the time of the interview the boy was in standard 1, and he liked it at school, but his grades were poor because he was not getting any help (p.82) from his teacher in overcoming his barriers due to his poor eyesight. His mother had asked the teacher to help him, but to no avail:

‘He has problems with eyesight, so when I told the teacher to let him sit at the front the teacher moves him from the front to the back. And so she says that if I want my son to be at the front, I should take him away from that school.’

One 23-year-old woman from Blantyre spoke of her difficulties in getting an education beyond secondary school (form 4) and a job. She had applied for several jobs, but she felt that when she came to the interview and they saw that she was albino, they rejected her. She was unemployed at the time of the interview, living with her parents. She wanted to be a nurse, but felt that she was being rejected due to discrimination and lack of knowledge:

‘I want to go to the nursing school, and when I go there they say “you can not help us because our medicine is too difficult for your skin”.… They say that medicine can destroy my skin … I always get rejected because of my skin.’

Clearly, children with albinism face several challenges in the regular school system in Malawi. However, in addition to the more logistic challenges they face that are surmountable with simple and low-cost considerations, perhaps the greatest barrier hindering the inclusion of children with albinism is in the form of an unaccommodating school system.

Women and Living Conditions Study 2006

For the majority of the informants in the study about women with disabilities in Malawi, the onset of their disability dated from before they started school. All informants had some education – six had finished primary school, four had started but not finished primary school, six had finished secondary school and seven had some sort of higher education (university/college). All the informants lived in Blantyre, an urban district, at the time of the study. The informants of this study may be typical of women with disabilities living in urban areas of Malawi, but they are not typical of the average Malawian woman. Compared to the informants in the Living Conditions Survey among people with disabilities in Malawi (Loeb and Eide, 2004), the 23 women described here are better educated and more have jobs. In spite of the fact that they represent a selected and privileged group of Malawian women, most of the women interviewed had experienced difficulties in accessing and obtaining an education that may be more common to Malawian women in general.

Among the four informants with a hearing impairment, three had gone to schools for the deaf. These schools are privately run, cost money and are therefore (p.83) unavailable to most deaf or hearing impaired children. One deaf woman had gone to ‘normal’ public school, and she had experienced that:

‘In school people say teachers should speak to deaf children, not use sign language.’

The woman is a teacher herself now, and has been fighting for the use of sign language in schools for many years. She feels that she is more accepted in society because, unlike most deaf people, she can speak.

‘There is a battle between hearing society who thinks we should speak, and deaf society who thinks we should sign.’

One major problem in using sign language in schools or in society in general is the lack of sign language interpreters in Malawi. The women knew of only two or three in the country. In addition to the lack of sign language interpreters, their services are very expensive, and it is not government sponsored, so most people cannot afford their services.

A woman with albinism had experienced discrimination in public school, both from other pupils and from the teachers. The pupils were afraid of her unusual looks, and thought she was infectious. In addition, one of her teachers had refused to teach her, saying:

‘I am not supposed to teach a short-sighted pupil.’

Because of this discrimination she decided to change to a private school, where she was treated much better; the teachers dictated to her what they wrote on the blackboard and other pupils sometimes shared their notes with her. This woman was fortunate to have a family that could afford to send her to private school, as private schools are too expensive for most Malawians.

Many of the women told similar stories of being teased or bullied by their fellow pupils, and one woman with a physical disability said that it made her feel unwanted in school. Another 20-year-old woman with a physical disability had been discriminated against by one of her teachers:

‘I … experienced psychological abuse when I was at school. Once a teacher asked each of the students to bring six sticks [small but hard]. He told each student to break the sticks using the left leg knee – all the sticks at once. Since my left leg is the one which is disabled, I did not break the sticks. The teacher asked me why I did not break them. I tried to explain, but he did not listen and he started shouting at me, saying that I was stupid and that I will get zero marks. I really felt bad in front of the other students, who were also laughing uncontrollably. I felt bad and I could not concentrate anymore in class for two days.’

(p.84) A 23-year-old woman, who became blind when she was five, had experienced many difficulties throughout her education. In secondary school she went to a private boarding school (paid for by a relative) where there were 13 other blind students. The school lacked adapted materials for the blind (Braille). At the time of the interview, she was in a teachers college, financed through a scholarship by the Government of Malawi, together with 11 other blind students. At the college the students experienced several challenges, including lack of adapted materials for the blind, few examiners who could mark their exams and lack of papers written in Braille.

One woman, who became blind when she was 15 years old, was helped by a special education teacher who taught her Braille, but she was also mainstreamed in the classroom with the other pupils. In her experience she felt that many parents take their children out of school because of lack of money, and if the choice is between removing a son or a daughter, it is usually the daughter who is taken out of school, because boys are perceived to be more intelligent than girls. Similarly, a physically disabled woman had been taken out of school because of poverty in the family, while her (non-disabled) brother continued his education. A blind woman put it this way:

‘Men are pushed up – women are pushed down.’

Some of the women had not even been encouraged to get good marks and to take formal education. One woman said that:

‘I grew up in a village where people disregarded education. So when I quit school, no one encouraged or persuaded me to go to school. But I regret it now. I am glad that my children are at school.’

A woman in her forties became disabled after having polio when she was five years old. Throughout her childhood she had to crawl everywhere because she had no wheelchair or crutches, and therefore she could not go to school. Her mother had taught her to read and write, and when she was 17 years old she received a wheelchair and could attend school for the first time. She started school in standard 5 (primary school), being much older than the other pupils, but she did not mind. Her problems in school were connected to the accessibility of the school buildings. Some classes were on the second floor of a building without a lift, and so she was unable to attend these classes. She was fortunate, however, to have had some friends who shared their notes with her. In addition, she could not access the toilets in the school; the doors were too narrow to accommodate her wheelchair. She mostly experienced acceptance by her teachers and fellow pupils, but some teachers were known to have said “No disabled can go here!” In spite of these difficulties she managed to get a college-level education, with good financial and practical help from her family and friends.

(p.85) Similarly, other disabled women succeeded in getting an education with the assistance of family and friends. Some rather simple solutions, others involving more effort, have been initiated to overcome the obstacles faced by women with disabilities in attaining an education:

  • parents sent a young disabled girl to boarding school, together with one of her sisters, so that the sister could help look after her;

  • a woman who was unable to walk had been carried to school every day by her grandmother;

  • another physically disabled woman had been driven to school by her father who worked as a driver.

Assistive devices and adapted education have been recorded as breaking some of the barriers that hinder girls from attending school. A woman in her forties became disabled after having malaria when she was one-and-a-half years old and until the age of 15 she was unable to either walk or speak. However, after a series of operations and after being fitted for callipers so she could walk, she started school. She successfully completed primary and secondary school. In secondary school she had to change school once because the steps in the first school were too big.

The family of a girl with Down's syndrome was not aware of her intellectual impairment until the girl was in standard 2. At that stage the child's teacher advised the mother to enrol the girl in a special school for children with intellectual impairments. The girl likes it much better in that school, she has friends, she has learned to write and she is much happier.

Education is perhaps the main key to less discrimination and better integration for women with disabilities. One of the deaf informants was educated as a teacher of special education needs. She was proud of what she felt to be her important job, and felt that education makes women with disabilities more self-confident:

‘People have changed their attitude towards me because of what I have accomplished.… I have a junior certificate and I also have a teacher's certificate.… I have a house of my own.’

Similarly, a blind teacher said:

‘The blindness has affected my life, but now I have accepted it because of the work I am doing. Blind people can do anything!… I am a teacher…. And I can cook for the family when I am at home.’


In the research presented in this chapter, poverty is addressed through paradigms defined not only by lack of personal goods and material wealth, but in terms of social inclusion, and in particular, access to education. As one of the poorest (p.86) countries in the world (UNDP, 2007/08), Malawi faces several challenges in the provision of education to its population.

With respect to the Living Conditions Survey, households selected for inclusion were matched with respect to disability status by location – households without a disabled family member were chosen from the same neighbourhood as the selected household with a disabled family member. It might be expected, therefore, that economic indicators would be also be similar – to a certain extent neighbours might be expected to have similar socioeconomic standards. That finding was confirmed in the analysis presented; there was no significant difference in mean asset index between families with and without a disabled family member. This finding does not mean that such a relationship does not exist – the data and the research design did not allow for that particular finding to emerge. However, it was shown that disparities between those with and without a disability do exist when poverty is measured according to access to education and other indicators of social inclusion. This finding is stronger, in fact, because of the design of the survey analyses presented here, that is, all else being equal (age, gender and socioeconomic status [asset index]), people with disabilities are still subject to poverty and its consequences due to the inaccessibility of education. Finally, in low-income countries, and among the households in our sample, poverty is an equaliser, although we find a certain degree of variation in the asset index and can differentiate three rather distinct groups; these groups are more similar than they are different.

Thus one main conclusion can be drawn from the results from the three studies described above – people with disabilities in Malawi face more difficulties accessing the education they are entitled to by law compared to their non-disabled peers, and as a result they are more likely to be uneducated, unemployed and poor. The main challenges, as pointed out by the National Economic Council (2000), are access to education (physical and economic) and poor standards of education (teaching and teaching materials), factors that we have seen from the studies above that affect the vulnerable group of people with disabilities in particular. But, as the studies described in this chapter have shown, the challenges are more than just physical and economic. The examples also show that challenges and barriers to education are created by lack of awareness leading to bad attitudes and discriminatory practices among teachers as well as fellow pupils. Similar findings were made by Howell (2006) in relation to higher education for people with disabilities in South Africa.

People with disabilities in developing countries in general (Filmer, 2005), as well as in Malawi, have lower levels of education compared to their non-disabled peers. Furthermore, several studies have shown that the correlation between disability and poor education outcomes is larger than those associated with other characteristics, such as gender (Filmer, 2005). The Living Conditions Survey in Malawi showed that people with disabilities are less likely to have attended school compared to their non-disabled peers. Women with disabilities and disabled people living in rural areas are among the most disadvantaged when it comes to school (p.87) attendance and completion. Among the individuals with a disability who had never attended school, the main reason for this was because of their disability, followed by lack of interest, lack of money and illness. Disability may be a reason in itself and may also include the environmental barriers experienced by the person with a disability. Lack of interest may include problems associated with difficulties in communication and learning experienced by those with visual, hearing or communication difficulties and without the necessary support or technical assistance (Braille school materials, sign language teachers etc) needed to ignite and maintain interest in the classroom.

Much of education is based on communication and it was not surprising to find that those with communication impairment and intellectual/emotional impairment faced greater activity limitations than those with other forms of disability.

People with disabilities in Malawi, given the chance to attend school, perform at a level that is equal to those without a disability. There is, however, a slight age effect that would seem to indicate that, by age, those with disabilities have not attained the same level of education as those without disabilities. This finding is perhaps indicative of the fact that many children with disabilities face greater barriers in attending school, starting later than their peers and often taking more time to complete their studies. Barriers that hinder children and young people with disabilities from attending school may vary. Often schools and classrooms are not adapted to the special needs of children with disabilities. Beyond the obstacles of gaining physical access to the facility itself, other barriers can include a lack of suitable teaching materials (Braille, sign language interpreters, large print textbooks etc), or a lack of teachers trained to deal with the needs of children and young people with disabilities. Many of the children with physical disabilities either have or had problems getting to school and accessing school buildings, and even if they gained access to schools, many could not attend because toilet facilities at the schools were inaccessible to them. Several of the barriers faced by children with disabilities could be overcome with very minor costs involved, such as ensuring physical access to the classroom (making sure it is on the first floor) for people with a physical impairment, adapted learning materials, classroom placement and assistance of classmates for people with poor vision. For children with albinism, sunburn may be overcome through adapted school uniforms (long sleeves and hats), the application of sun block and encouraging and permitting those children to remain in the shade. In addition to the barriers created by poor physical access and lack of special education in mainstream schools, stigmatisation and discrimination of people with disabilities creates barriers to equal access to education for children and young people with disabilities in Malawi. Several of the informants in the studies said that they had experienced discrimination and exclusion by teachers and fellow pupils at school. This discrimination made it very difficult for some to carry on with their education, and as a result many got poor results or at worst, dropped out of school altogether. The qualitative studies also indicate that being a girl/woman with a disability created a double burden, (p.88) an indication that is verified in the Living Conditions Survey. The problems of knowledge and discrimination in society in general and in school in particular require an active effort on the part of schools, teachers and others to understand, accommodate, accept and include children with disabilities in the school system.

The Government of Malawi (Ministry of Education) has spelled out that there is a general lack of resources for special needs education in Malawi, both in mainstream and in special education schools. The findings from the three studies above emphasise this shortcoming, but those who had experienced both mainstream and special schools (for the blind, deaf and intellectually impaired) felt that they received much better education in the special schools. The reason for this was that the education was adapted to their special needs and the teachers were trained in special education. In addition to this, the children felt more accepted and less discriminated against by the teachers and fellow pupils. Public schools, on the other hand, do not have the funds, knowledge or means to make special considerations for children with various forms of disabilities and special needs. The issue of integrated special education in mainstream schools versus segregated special education schools is still largely un-debated in Malawi. The overall aim, however, of the disability movement and the Government of Malawi is ‘to foster, develop and sustain an inclusive society through clear policies, programmes, legislation and mainstreaming of disability issues in all sectors of development’ (MSDPWD, 2006).

There is an observed positive change in education attendance over time (as seen in the Living Conditions Survey), and this change is observed among those with and without a disability, although the attendance statistics for those with a disability lag somewhat behind those without. There may be several reasons for this observed change. One reason may be connected to primary education having been free since 1994, and hence there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of education from the Government. Furthermore, education is the focus of a number of international development projects in Malawi; schools have been built, teachers educated and recruited, and awareness about the importance of education has been spread throughout Malawi. In Malawi, education attendance and level of education appears to be closely linked to both the parents' finances and their level of education – the higher the parents' education, the more likely they are to ensure that their children have a good education. The Living Conditions Survey also showed that the richest among those with disabilities were more likely to attend school. It has been said that children are our future and if that is true, then nothing could be more important than providing our children with an education. Providing an education for children is an investment in future generations.

In the attempt to achieve the UN's aim of halving world poverty by 2015, it is imperative that the notion of poverty be broadened to include lack of personal goods and material wealth, as well as social inclusion and access to public services such as healthcare, education and employment (UN, 1995). Through increased access to education for people with disabilities, an increased self-sufficiency among (p.89) this group could be ensured, which would be a more lasting solution to poverty eradication then merely focusing on material wealth.

Children and adults, men and women with various forms of disabilities, all expressed a great wish for people with disabilities to be given the opportunity to get an education. Many felt that education was the foremost way to empower this group of people and to eliminate the poverty among and discrimination of people with disabilities in Malawian society.


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(1) More information about Horace Mann is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Mann

(2) Educational services include: remedial therapist, special school, early childhood stimulation, regular schooling, etc.