Abiti Afiki, a mother of three children from Mbosongwe Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kawinga in Machinga sighs with relief and joy. Her two older children are in school but the last born, Daudi, three years old, has always clung to her back, making it difficult for her to run family chores.
The boy has disability challenges; he cannot walk but only crawls and fails to speak. He has never been enrolled at the community-based childcare centre (CBCC) just a few metres away in the village until recently. Things have changed for Daudi and other children with disabilities.
The change has come as a result of an Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa)-funded ‘Early Stimulation and Transition of Children with Special Needs’ project being implemented by Association of Early Childhood Development in Malawi (AECDM) in Machinga and Mangochi.
AECDM Programmes Manager Maureen Katola says the is a form of inclusive early childhood development education (ECDE) which aims at assisting children aged between three and eight with special education needs attain basic skills to facilitate a smooth transition of the children to primary school.
She says children with special needs are often left out of the mainstream CBCCs and primary schools because of various reasons which include teachers and caregivers having inadequate training in inclusive methodologies, inaccessible environments, social stigma and negative parental attitudes to disability among other barriers.
“These children with disabilities are failing to attain goals which, according to research, lead to achieving immediate benefits of early stimulation and learning for all children which are higher intelligence, improved practical reasoning, hearing and speech readiness, improved school performance, less class repetition and dropout and increased schooling,” she says.
Katola notes that by not including children with special needs in all CBCC and school programmes, it means losing out on more economic gains based on human capital as a country
AECDM, the umbrella body for organisations providing ECDE services in the country, was establishment in 1970. The association’s mandate includes training of caregivers, supervision of childcare centres and advocacy for more participation by members of the community in provision of childcare services.
“Previously, our programme had always excluded children with disabilities during the training of caregivers but thanks to Birmingham University which collaborated with Chancellor College, University of Malawi, to train AECDM staff in Inclusive Education (IE). We are now able to train our caregivers in IE supporting the government policy on IE. We can now brag to say that
AECDM has so far trained about 200 caregivers and about 100 infant primary school teachers, health surveillance assistants and community-based rehabilitation volunteers in Machinga and Mangochi.
“We work towards a multi-sectoral approach to achieve our goals and these people we target work with children all the time. We seek to develop their skills to help reach out to the children,” she adds.
AECDM Executive Director Archie Malisita informs that the project started two years ago in T/A Bwananyambi, Mangochi and T/A Kawinga in Machinga with the funding from Osisa. Some child workers in T/A Chamba in Machinga have also been included in the project.
“We were concerned about attitudes of some parents, caregivers and communities in general towards children with disabilities .The children were being marginalised. In some extreme cases, they are hidden away from the public. The children with disabilities were targeted with derogatory, disrespectful and discriminatory words. This acted as a barrier to their attainment of early childhood development services,” Malisita says
He explains that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has a 10-point disability-screening tool, which caregivers must know and use.
“Caregivers must have an understanding on different children’s disabilities, their causes and how to interact with such children,” he adds.
Malisita says the country has about four million children who need ECD services but only a million have the opportunity to get this critical service. There are about 16,000 trained caregivers but seriously below required number of about 400,000 caregivers to reach out to many children. He points out some of these children have various forms of disabilities but due to lack of resources, some of them have not been reached with ECD services.
“Children are all born as perfect little beings with their own unique, individual differences who are already able to intuitively discover, learn about and adapt to the world they find themselves in. To help these children prepare for education, providing ECD services is the right route to take regardless of their status. This helps to prepare children for rigorous intellectual, social and emotional development which in the end will benefit society,” argues Malisita
He says early childhood services give children ‘school readiness’ which means children are essentially imperfect and need to be standardised to fit the system. This readiness will help lay a good foundation for full development of character that society requires. It is the basis to prevent anti-social behaviour among children.
“Various research findings have shown that one major cause for children flocking to the streets is due to lack of access to ECD services at the right time. Children who have care from the right age of three to eight years cannot go to the streets,” says Malisita.
He says providing children with nutritious food is a critical component of ECD service from the ages zero-eight years. This helps to nourish the intellectual, psychological, and emotional development of the children.
“We have included farming particularly of vegetables and maize as a practical aspect of the training we offer. We advise caregivers to open gardens at the care centres so that nutritious food is available to the children.”
The association has a demonstration garden on the premises of its head office in Blantyre where crops such as maize and a variety of vegetables are grown.
Abit Afiki, like other parents of children with disabilities, has expressed gratitude to the changes that have happened.
“It is not easy to care for a child with disabilities. Sometimes we are forced to leave such children in the house alone because we have to look for food. We have now noticed that the children are developing some skills. Daudi, for example, could not utter sensible words but now he is at least able to do so,” says Abiti Afiki
One of the trained caregivers, Veronica Uladi from Nakanga CBCC, who comes from Tutuli Village, T/A Kawinga, Machinga says the training has helped caregivers and the communities at large to change their attitudes towards children with disabilities.
“We believe these children with disabilities will be prepared for school and will do well.We have seen change in attitude of parents of disabled children .They do not hide their children anymore. Even the public has changed attitudes towards such children.We are pleased with the project,” says Uladi.
AECDM has plans to expand its training activities, especially on inclusive ECDE.
“We are appealing to our donors to help us expand towards inclusive education .We wish to reach many caregivers and other actors in the field,” says Malisita.
“Our children, despite their disabilities, must fit into the system as individuals to reach their chosen goals. These children will be given an opportunity to contribute to our nationhood in a positive manner as fully developed individuals. It is clear that for all children to reach their full potential, they need a wide range of well- thought -through and well-delivered, developmentally appropriate, play-based experiences, which the care centres provide. This way they will be able to do well in formal education,” he adds.