The drive to Chikwawa District saw us descend the hills of Blantrye into the Shire River valley. An area of contradictions – it suffers from a lack of rainfall yet is susceptible to flooding. It is replete with sugar plantations, yet often experiences food shortages. This is usually one of the hottest parts of the country, but today the cold weather made me wish I were back in the UK!
Our first stop was an all singing all dancing affair with children, carers and parents at the Chisomo Community-based Childcare Centre. Ivan and Tessa got to meet the impressive men and women volunteers of the Centre’s organising committee, sing songs with the children, speak to parents and even have a go at preparing the children’s porridge – a missed calling for them both.
The Centre provides essential pre-school care to children and with the help of Sightsavers has been improving access for disabled children. The parents we met were unequivocal about the benefit the centre had brought to their children. It had prepared them for school not only academically but gave them the confidence to socialise with other children. It had also benefitted the parents by giving them the time they need to do their work and run errands.
There is still significant stigma attached to disability in Malawi. Discrimination is endemic. Many believe that disability arises from the wrongdoing of parents, even witchcraft, and often leads to the hiding away of disabled children depriving them of the opportunities they deserve. Voter registration was happening across the district today, but only a few weeks ago the Malawi Union of the Blind were petitioning the Malawi Electoral Commission to introduce procedures which would protect and respect their voting rights http://www.nyasatimes.com/2013/06/28/malawis-visually-impaired-people-petitions-electoral-body-on-voting-issues/.
The second project we visited aims to address the issue of discrimination in education by working with parents, teachers and children adapt early childhood development approaches for disabled and particularly visually impaired children. One of the volunteers to the project said, “This has given us something to motivate us and help parents to understand that their disabled child should go to school as well.” Ivan thought it was awe inspiring to hear people talk about innovation in challenging environments. This is a subject close to his heart as long before becoming an MP he set up a charity in his local area that worked with people with learning disabilities.
Part of an integrated approach to early childhood development is also ensuring that women have the information and facilities to prepare for motherhood. Whilst a lot of progress has been made in maternal health – the President’s Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood has included training midwives, providing maternal waiting shelters at hospitals http://blog.ted.com/2013/01/30/how-malawi-is-improving-a-terrible-maternal-mortality-rate-through-good-design/, even fines for home births – a lot more needs to be done.
In the afternoon, we visited Chikwawa District Hosptial to meet with health and water and sanitation specialists. We visited both the maternal and children’s ward and spoke to nurses and clinicians. This visit also enabled us to see that Neglected Tropical Diseases, including trachoma which accounts for 25% of all cases of blindness in Malawi are symptomatic of lack of investment in health systems strengthening.
The message was clear everywhere we went – more training, more staffing and more infrastructure would make a big difference, not only to maternal and early childhood care but to the health system as a whole. Training would enable the carers at Chisomo to provide better support to parents who bring their children to the centre, and the hospital desperately needed more staff, medicines and equipment.
As we drove back to Blantyre the local newspaper’s frontpage headline read “Drug shortages 80%” at the Central Medical Store. A notice at the hospital told us that wages were being frozen for the next few weeks. These are messages we can take with us to our meeting with the Health and Finance Ministers on Wednesday.
Jessica Toale is Political Advisor to Ivan Lewis MP and a member of LCID.
Follow the Malawi trip on twitter via @LabourCID