During a volunteering project in the community Ekumpoano in Ghana, I encountered a man with a physical disability sitting alone in the sand. His infectious smile caught my attention and I smiled right back at him. A smile so honest and wide that made me reflect on the smiles that I get when I am back in Germany. Thus, I started thinking: Does this man or in general do children living with a disability have access to education as promised through international and domestic legal frameworks? Given the already disadvantaged position they find themselves in, is the education sector inclusive enough to ensure that children living with disabilities are not discriminated against?
Current situation of children living with a disability
According to UNICEF, about 15% of the world’s population have a form of disability – this is about 1 billion persons and nearly 240 million of them are children. Besides, around 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries. In general, disability is defined as “a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment, which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder the full and effective participation in society of a person on equal basis with other persons.” The 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census indicates that in Malawi live about 1.734.250 persons with disabilities aged 5 years and above, representing about 11,6% of the total population of this age. In this regard, a baseline study that compared the numbers of students living with and without disabilities in four different schools in Malawi states that approximately 2,5% of 4.600 students are children living with a disability at Goliati primary school.
The plight of children living with a disability
Children living with disabilities suffer from several forms of discrimination regarding their right to education depending on their individual situation. Is it possible for the child to get to school regarding the distance? Are textbooks available in Braille or large text? Can a child living with disabilities be expected to withstand possible consequences of misconceptions, stereotypes and cultural beliefs? For instance, in some parts of Malawi it is believed that parents with children with a disability have performed some kind of rituals on their children to get rich which in some cases leads to the family’s eviction from the village. Furthermore, the children lack support in their education due to the limited number of special needs teachers as well as access to school amenities that support their condition.
Legal frameworks on children living with disabilities regarding their right to education
Despite the plight that children living with disabilities face, international and national legal frameworks provide for their protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), introduced in 1989, obligates State Parties “(…) to ensure that the disabled child has effective access to and receives education, (…)” (Article 23 paragraph 3). Furthermore, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) highlights the importance of equal access to education for children living with disabilities and names an inclusive school system to fulfil the principle of equal opportunity in Article 24. More recently, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets the goal to “(…) ensure equal access to all levels of education (…), including persons with disabilities, (…)” in SDG 4.5.
Parallel to these Conventions the African Union declares that all people “(…) shall have the same rights.” in Article 19 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) from 1981. In these endeavours, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons, which got into force in 2018, includes the right to education for persons with disabilities (Article 16).
Regarding the legal framework on the equal right to education for children living with disabilities in Malawi, the state has ratified all the named international Conventions. The Constitution of Malawi defines equality as a human right and prohibits discrimination on grounds of disability following Section 20 Constitution. Additionally, Malawi implemented many provisions of the UNCRPD by the Disability Act 2012 such as “the rights of persons with disabilities to education on the basis of equal opportunity, and ensure an inclusive education system (…)” (Art. 10). Inter alia, Malawi’s National Policy on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (NPEOPWD) from 2006 establishes the implementation of an inclusive school system. Furthermore, the National Inclusive Education Strategy (NIES) of Malawi includes a 5-year plan (2017-2021) to strengthen the capacity for inclusive education in Malawi.
Conclusion – a “disabled child has effective access to and receives education” – just a daydream or the reality?
The recurrent emphasis regarding the fulfillment of the equal right to education for children living with a disability is connected to an inclusive school system to overcome inequalities. However, it is still questionable to what extent this can be implemented in their real lives: Even if there is an inclusive school several kilometres away from their home, would it be possible for a child living with a physical disability to get there every day? Nevertheless, it is essential to highlight and promote the rights of children with disabilities who have the same rights as all of us.
 Malawi Disability Act, Part I – Preliminary, 2. Interpretation.
 National Statistics Office, “2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census Main report” (May 2019) accessed 13 April 2023.
 Chavuta, A.; Itimu-Phiri, A.N.; Chiwaya, S.; Sikero, N.; Alindiamao, G. “Montfort Special Needs Education College and Leonard Cheshire Disability international inclusive education project”; in ‘Shire Highlands Education Division – Malawi, baseline study report’ (August 2008).
 See note 1.
 Masulani‐Mwale, C., D. Mathanga, D. Silungwe, F. Kauye, and M. Gladstone. “Parenting children with intellectual disabilities in Malawi: The impact that reaches beyond coping? Parental experiences” in ‘Child Care Health and Development’ (July 2016).
 See note 5.