Malawi makes a difference

Learning support and community based child care in rural Africa

Education in developing countries is often regarded as a privilege rather than a right, and children with support needs are all too often an excluded group. A number of national organisations in Malawi, working with a team from the University of Birmingham have found this need not be the case, as Dr. Anita Soni reports.

In the landlocked republic of Malawi, located in South East Africa, over half the population live below the poverty. Mortality and morbidity rates are high, fuelled by a multitude of problems including a high prevalence of HIV, and issues around food security that lead to malnutrition. While children with disabilities may not seem a high priority given the conditions, the potential benefits of providing quality care in early childhood to this group run deep.

In fact, a great deal can be done, from releasing family members with caring responsibilities so they are able to earn and socialise, to increasing productivity and independence among the children themselves with a knock-on effect on welfare costs and alleviation of poverty. This in turn benefits society as a whole.

Growth in support

In rural Malawi, the approach that has been most successful and endures to this day is Community Based Child Care (CBCC). The system relies mainly on volunteer workers who receive minimal training and resourcing from the community, government and non-government organisations, and while there has been a huge increase in the number of children accessing care – from under 3 per cent in 2000 to over 45 per cent in 2015 – there remains a significant majority who do not.

Provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is recognised as inadequate, but it is being addressed via the National Early Childhood Development Policy. Running for five years to 2020, the NEDCP recognises the importance of improving facilities for children with SEND – including the need to upgrade the current infrastructure – as well as providing training for caregivers, supplying play and learning materials, and enhancing monitoring systems, with the aim of fully developing all children’s potential.

However, barriers remain. A significant one is the fact that up to 80 per cent of parents and caregivers regard these settings as a place where children are prepared for school, as opposed to an opportunity for learning and development in its own right. For children with SEND, who are often perceived as not being included in education, this presents as a significant problem. Parents are concerned about the children being a burden on the staff, and fear stigmatisation and discrimination  with the children being left out or hurt by comments by their peers.

Upskilling the workforce

Although caregivers in Malawi are supposed to be offered a basic two week or extended six week training course, a 2015 World Bank report stated that of the 26,888 caregivers employed, only 56 per cent had received this and the caregivers often have large groups of children with an average adult-child ratio of 1-28. These factors were kept in mind when developing the inclusion training for CBCC caregivers as part of the project, as it needed to be accessible to individuals who might have limited literacy skills, couldn’t rely on existing structures or resources, and had to be culturally sensitive.

A significant change involved moving from the short separate unit on disability and inclusion that forms part of the initial training all caregivers are expected to receive, to a more integrated and practical approach. The concept of inclusion was initiated through experiential activities that supported caregivers to consider their attitudes and values towards, and in turn segregation of, children with disabilities. Simple case studies were used to prompt discussion and reflection.




Activities to build inclusivity were encouraged, using the preferred approaches to learning commonly used in Malawi, singing and storytelling, utilising free and local materials such as sticks, stones and bottle tops.

Games, such as parachute games, that could involve everyone were promoted. Making training participatory meant those involved could see the value of active involvement – and therefore how it would benefit the children – as well as build confidence.

There are always limitations, but there was clear evidence that the training has had a significant impact on the caregivers’ understanding of their responsibility to include all children, with associated changes in behaviour.  It seems that the practical and sensitive nature of the training could work in other areas of the world where inclusion remains an issue.

Case Study

Annie, Carol and Mary

In one instance, the training led to the caregivers engaging with the community to build a room for the CBCC in their village. This now houses around 70 children, including Annie, who at eight is considerably older than her peers. She has physical difficulties, and has been viewed as difficult by caregivers, but now they take care to include her, for example, by encouraging her to hold the rope for skipping. Annie is thriving as a result, with mum Mary encouraged by her progress, finding her more playful and engaged at home, and seeing a future for her daughter that involves school and a job. Caregiver Carol says she has newfound pride in her work and would like to learn more so she can further her work with the increasing number of SEND children who are enrolling with the CBCC.


Dr. Anita Soni – School of Education, University of Birmingham

Academic and professional tutor




Feature Image: Pixabay – A rural village in Malawi