Perching in a wheelchair, Pauline Gondwe struggles to find a job. The 28-year-old finds the job market unfriendly to people with disability.
“During job interviews, panelists judge me by the way I look,” she says.
She spoke of an employer who told her blatantly that she was disqualified from the job due to her physical disability.
“It pained,” she says. “Why should my appearance matter when I have the capacity to do a job?”
Gondwe was born without a disability, but her legs were paralysed after being struck by epilepsy.
“I was only three and I could not walk anymore,” she says, tapping the wheelchair.
Despite the setback, Gondwe was an intelligent learner.
After sitting the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) Examinations in 2001, she pursued a computer and typewriting course at Kamuzu Vocational Training Centre in Magomero.
She completed the course in 2006, the year her parents died.
“It was the most difficult moment of my life. As the first born, I had to take care of my four siblings,” she recalls.
The desperation to fend for the family instantly put her on a long, fruitless search for a job.
“I started a job hunt immediately after completing my course, but I have been unlucky to this day,” she says.
Gondwe is one of jobless young Malawians who constitute a significant proportion of the country’s population.
Nearly 73 percent of 17.9 million are aged below 30, shows the Malawi Youth Status Report.
However, the youthful majority is grappling with unemployment.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that 23 percent of the youth—nearly a quarter of young Malawians of employable age—are not employed.
Mzimba Luwelezi youth parliamentarian Gloria Moyo, says access to jobs is never easy for the youth with disability.
“There are some jobs we are capable of doing, but employers presume that we can’t manage. We are sidelined in that way. That’s why most of us are not employed,” says the youth activist with albinism.
Moyo wants government to come to their aid.
“Government is not helping us, but are human beings like any other”. We need are jobs, not alms,” she says.
Mzuzu district youth officer Youngson Ngwira calls for civic education to change the mentality of employers.
“We really need to intensify civic education for employers to accept that people with physical disabilities have the right to work and they are capable of doing jobs they are trained in,” he says.
To him, time has come to end the talk about disability, start taking life-changing action to promote inclusion and equal treatment.
“We need action to ensure people with disability are not left out in socio-economic services,” he says.
Concurring, Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma) head of programmes Simon Munde asks government to honor requirement of international human rights treaties which it signed.
He says: “Malawi is party to several instruments which promote equality and nondiscrimination, but these treaties are not implemented due to lack of commitment in promoting issues of disability.
“Other countries have deliberate legislation that forces employers to employ a certain quota of persons with disabilities. This is done also to alleviate the poverty of individuals with disabilities.”
Munfe, however, commends some government ministries for employing persons with disability an equal opportunity, even in decision-making positions.
Stereotypes of employers who discriminate against persons with disabilities in the employment sector remains a major challenge on the job market, according to Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare spokesperson Lucy Bandazi.
“Youth unemployment is a national problem that is faced by everyone, including those without disabilities,” she says.
The Disability Act of 2012 prohibits any form of discrimination and protects the right to employment for all persons with disabilities.
The ministry is working closely with Malawi Council for the Handicapped (Macoha) in a placement programme where potential employers get curriculum vitas of the youth with disabilities for possible employment.
“Within this programme, we engage the youth with disabilities in career talks to prepare them for the job market. The ministry further has vocational training centers that provide skills training to youth with disabilities in various fields for their self-employment as well as hired employment,” she says.
But getting jobs remains a tough task for them.
After a hostile decade, Gondwe gave up on job hunting and started a small scale knitting business in Masasa Township, Mzuzu. Self-employment allows her to put her skill in knitting to profitable use.
She underwent further training in tailoring at St John of God Vocational Skills Centre in Mzuzu where she received start-up tools at the end of the training.
“I was discouraged and gave up looking for jobs. “I have since started a group at Masasa in the city where I’m teaching the youth with disability in knitting,” she says.
Through the initiative, the youth are given skills, loans and start-up tools to become entrepreneurs and employ others.
Gondwe calls on government to ensure skills development centre, including national and community technical colleges, do not exclude people with disabilities. n