Navigating displacement camps with disability: A tale of Christina

At Savala Camp, GHV Savala, T/A Makhuwira in Chikwawa district, a blind 25 year old Christina Palichina struggles to make sense of the unfamiliar surrounding environment that has become her temporary home as she is among those displaced by cyclone Freddy. This is a camp housing about 1,096 people, who are using two rooms meant to accommodate less than 200.

The temporally shelter, now a home for those that have lost their homes, properties as well as livelihood in GVH Savala, is filled to the blink, demanding wit from those displaced to survive day by day.

For Christina, life was already hard following losing her sight at the age of seventeen while fetching firewood in a nearby hill in her area, but under the care of her aunt who took her and her other four siblings in following the death of her parents, her new normal was bearable under the care of family relations and a familiar surrounding environment.

Challenges continue in camps.

However when Freddy devastated the country, the family was left homeless, forcing them to seek shelter in a displacement camp.

โ€œEvery task is a challenge now, even going to toilet is a challenge because am no longer familiar with my surroundingโ€. Explained Christina

Her aunt Cecelia Mtemangawo who is also a mother to her own 6 children narrates the ordeal Christina goes through while living at Savala camp with no disability friendly infrastructure and special services catering to those with social needs.

According to Mtemangawo, the ordeal has not only robbed Christina of her living, but also her dignity as a woman, where needs such as going to the toilet to relieve herself have proven to be a big challenge.

โ€œI am the one who helps her around but sometimes I am not always available since I also have six of my children to care for as we are all living here at the camp. It is very difficult for her to manage day to day personal tasks and sometimes she wets herself because she doesnโ€™t know where to go if she wants to pee.โ€ Said Mtemangawo.

Christina Palichina
Facing challenges: Christina Palichina (R)

When disaster strikes, like the case of cyclone Freddy in Malawi, the devastation is enormous as people lose their lives, property and their livelihood. The survivors, are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and to others like those with disabilities, this is not an easy task.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15 per cent of the worldโ€™s population have a disability

However in displacement settings across the globe the needs of people with disabilities are still largely overlooked and this sentiment is also shared by advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in Malawi.

In the words of Simon Munde, Executive Director for the Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi-FEDOMA, persons with disabilities are facing numerous challenges living in camps as most of the infrastructures are not disability friendly and not conducive to carter to people with special needs.

For this reason Munde challenged authorities to introduce disability friendly facilities in camps accommodating victims of cyclone Freddy to ensure they are living in a conducive environment.

โ€œWe have lamented time and again of the plight of persons with disabilities during disasters but out pleas have not attracted positive actions. This is the reality on the ground; people living with various forms of disabilities in the country already face numerous challenges and when disaster strikes, they are the most vulnerableโ€ Munde said.

Munde: We are concerned.

A Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, released in 2020, disclosed that displacement amplifies the risks for the safety, security and dignity of persons with disabilities.

The report indicated that while internally displaced persons with disabilities may share the same challenges as other displaced persons, because of environmental and social barriers they are affected differently and that their challenges may be overlooked.

โ€œInternally displaced children, women and older persons with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, are reportedly at risk of greater levels of abuse, violence and neglect than their peers without disabilities.โ€ Reads part of the report

As echoed by Patricia Kaliati-a passionate women and childrenโ€™s rights advocate and politician, in any disaster or crisis, it is the women and children that are heavily affected and there is need to put in place deliberate efforts to protect and care for these vulnerable groups when implementing disaster response strategies.

For those with disability, it is a double challenge; living with disability and displaced due to cyclone Freddy,

โ€œIn each and every situation those who suffer are women, children and people with disabilities and what we are looking forward to see is that those in the committees who are trusted to lead responses theyโ€™ve got to have the welfare of people at heart, theyโ€™ve got to think of women and children and people with disabilities and support them first. Even the houses of shelters housing those affected who happen to be living with various forms of disabilities must be disability friendly,” said Kaliati.

Kaliati: women and girls most affected during crisis.

For authorities themselves, efforts are being undertaken to reach out to people with special needs with adequate assistance, although more resources are needed to achieve the same, in the words of Chipiliro Khamula, Spokesperson for the Department of Disaster Management Affairs.

If there are lesson to be learned, then there has never been a better teacher than cyclone Freddy devastation. The heavy loss of life and property has been unimaginable. This trying time has also unearthed the gaps in the nationโ€™s preparedness and response to those affected, more especially those with special needs.

Addressing these challenges, means putting the principles of accessibility and nondiscrimination at the center of any intervention aimed at finding lasting solutions. It also means designing and implementing responses that are inclusive of and accessible to the diversity of persons with disabilities.

It is in times like these that States and other humanitarian and development actors need to shift from awareness of disability to a proactive human rights-based disability inclusion strategy to manage internal displacement.

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