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In a rural part of Malawi’s Ntcheu district, seven-year-old Shelista is helping her grandmother to feed their goats. The animals are a new addition to their community – they were supplied as part of an education project run by Sightsavers and local partners that is helping to tackle the education, food and climate crises in the country. 

In Malawi, around 37% of children are malnourished and more than 40% of children with disabilities aren’t in primary school. Globally, it’s estimated that climate change is disrupting the education of almost 40 million learners every year. On top of this, disability stigma is incredibly common, and girls with disabilities often face double discrimination for their gender and disability. However, it’s essential that we get girls into school to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to work and participate fully in society on an equal basis. 

“She’s no longer crying” 

Sightsavers’ Early Childhood Development Education project is working in 49 community based childcare centres (pre-schools) to ensure that children with disabilities can learn alongside their peers. The initiative trains caregivers (voluntary pre-school teachers) on inclusive education methods and works with communities to change negative attitudes, such as the misconception that children with disabilities cannot attend regular schools. The project focuses on encouraging girls’ attendance because we know that they are less likely to be in school for reasons such as boys’ education being seen as a greater priority.  

Shelista is deaf and before attending her local early education centre, her grandmother Rose says she was very unhappy: she would often cry and would even throw stones at other children. But with the support of caregivers, Shelista has settled in at the centre and her grandmother has seen a transformation. “When she wakes up now, she’s sweeping the yard, drawing water, cleaning utensils, cooking, and she’s no longer crying,” she says. “This project has really helped.”

When we asked her about attitudes shifting toward girls with disabilities being in education, she said “I can see that it’s really changing and they [parents] are sending children to school.” She now hopes that Shelista will progress into primary school. 

Sightsavers photo of a woman and a girl child in a school in Malawi.
Caregiver Nora in the classroom with Shelista. © Sightsavers/Homeline Media

Sustainable solutions for the education and food crises in Malawi

After carrying out consultations with local communities, the project was adapted to help provide solutions to challenges around food insecurity, an issue which is being exacerbated by increasingly erratic growing seasons due to climate change.  

Community gardens have been set up to provide children like Shelista and her classmates with a meal each day at school, and the introduction of goat farming provides a valuable source of income for the parents of children with disabilities. 

A recent World Food Programme report showed that school feeding programmes are the world’s most extensive social safety net and can increase attendance by 8%. Across the pre-primary schools in Malawi where Sightsavers works, we’re proud to have seen a 139% increase from 2021 – 2022 in parents registering their children at the schools – and at least half of the new pupils registered are girls. 

“When children come to school, their lives change” 

Nora has been teaching for twenty years and now works at one of the education centres. In her community, she’s seen how children with disabilities can be left at home if they are not encouraged into education, more commonly with girls. Data shows us that girls at all levels of education are enrolled less than boys; in 11 sub-Saharan countries just 21.6% of girls with disabilities completed a full course of secondary education compared to 36.1% of boys without disabilities. To be in school with their friends, they need this help, or they end up just staying home”, Nora says. “But when children come to school, their lives slowly change.” 

I want to see all girls access their right to a quality education – and through our global projects, we’ve shown that change is possible: when education systems are inclusive and resilient, girls and boys with disabilities can not only access school but can learn alongside their peers and thrive.  

In a world that is being rapidly altered by the climate crisis, education systems must transform to ensure they are fit for the future. Projects like this one support communities to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and by ensuring that children are in education, they are better equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to adapt to changes in the environment. 

This month, I will join colleagues from Sightsavers’ education, research and policy teams at the Education and Development Forum conference in the UK to highlight the importance of inclusive education and call on decision-makers to ensure that children with disabilities are considered as the sector adapts to climate change.  

This project has been previously supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.  

The Conversation

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