Overcoming barriers to inclusion in Douentza, Mali

Sue Stubbs

In January 1997 Save the Children Fund (SCF) UK set up a consultation process with government, donors, NGOs and village communities with the aim of making schooling more accessible to children. Access to schooling is part of a wider set of activities intended to strengthen the resilience of village children to the pressures of poverty. This article shows that inclusive education can be supported in one of the 'poorest' areas of the world and that huge environmental, climatic, economic and material challenges can be overcome.

Douentza is nine hours drive from the capital, Bamako, and is the poorest district within Mali - 90% of the population live below the established poverty line. The Sahara desert, in the north, is encroaching and rainfall is decreasing. The combined effect increases vulnerability to famine and drought. 87% of 7 year olds carry serious work responsibilities occupying 6 hours a day - girls work the longest hours. Children's work is perceived as educational and as a process of socialisation. It initiates them into skills which will enable them to support themselves, their parents, and contribute to the community.

Mali has a rich history and culture. It has produced Islamic scholars, world-renowned musicians, and is home to historic cities such as Timbuktu. Mali is the leading cotton producer in sub-saharan Africa and is proud of its democratic regime. Its many ethnic groups live together in relative harmony.

In Douentza there are only 17 schools in 255 villages and only 8% of children attend school compared to the national average of 44%. The government spends 24% of its sparse budget on education, but clearly does not have the resources to provide education for all children. There are also many drawbacks to existing state provision. School hours are inflexible, teachers are over-stretched and under-supported, teaching is by rote and in French, and the drop-out rate is very high.

The consultation process initiated by SCF revealed that 70% of children and adults would prefer a different future to that of their parents. The villagers wanted their children to go to school. Without a school education the children have very little chance of escaping a lifetime of rural poverty. However it was agreed that schooling and work should not be seen as intrinsically exclusive, schooling should respond to village conditions, and children should be able to go to school twice a day, coming home for lunch.

School Committees were formed and trained in two villages and guiding principles were established. Ordinary people from the local community were selected as teachers. The school curriculum and materials were adapted by villagers in order to reflect the experience of village children. The community agreed to build two classrooms in the first year and then one a year until there were six classrooms. Parents contributed to teachers' salaries. Equal places for girls and the inclusion of disabled children were presented as non-negotiable by SCF. The appointment of a woman on each management committee, who has sole responsibility for the recruitment of girls and disabled children, has ensured the success of this equal opportunities policy.

The barriers which exclude disabled children from schools are by no means unique to disabled children - however there are issues which are specific to the inclusion of disabled children.

Action on Disability and Development (ADD), a specialist international NGO, was involved from the beginning. ADD supports the development of Disabled People's Organisations and promotes the rights of disabled people within their local culture and context. Their representative in Bamako visited Douentza in early 1998 to carry out a survey and to raise awareness of disability issues. This enabled the school committees to identify the disabled children of school-going age who could be enrolled. A review was carried out in April 1999 which looked at the programme's strengths and weaknesses in terms of its impact on children. (See table for a summary of the outcomes.)

"To begin with we had the commitment to include disabled children, but we did not really believe that they could be in school. Now we have seen for ourselves, and we have moved from commitment to conviction."

A total of 11 children from 9 villages had begun to attend the two community schools. These included children with mobility problems, visual impairment and hearing impairment. At the time of the review, 8 continued to attend and were regarded as being successfully included. Two children dropped out due to a delay in getting promised tricycles. This was the fault of the NGOs. The other child who dropped out was a deaf girl. Her parents felt that she was learning nothing and should prioritise learning domestic work. The situation of children with learning disabilities is not clear.

Focusing on disabled children and adults is rarely something which is spontaneously prioritised by communities. This is not because they don't believe that disabled children should be included. They simply do not have access to examples of positive practice or good role models. A catalyst is needed to promote the issue - either from outside or within. SCF and ADD were the catalysts in Douentza. They insisted that the community schools should be inclusive from the start.

Barriers Overcoming Barriers
1. Inadequate and inappropriate state provision.
  • Investigating alternatives such as community and NGO support.
  • Consultation with local community.
  • Collaboration between NGO, community and state.
2. Education for girl children not seen as a priority within Mali culture.
  • A decision was made to ensure that 50% of school places went to girls.
  • One member of the management committee (a woman) was given the specific responsibility for girls' recruitment.
  • Local theatre and musician groups used to raise awareness and change attitudes in the local community on girls and education.
3. Access to education by disabled children is not prioritised by government, NGOs or community within Mali
  • Collaboration with a Disability NGO, Action on Disability and Development (ADD) to identify disabled children and raise awareness.
  • Decision to make inclusion of disabled children mandatory from the start.
  • The management committee person responsibility for girl's recruitment.
  • Local theatre and music groups used to raise awareness and change attitudes on disability.
4. Lack of transport for physically disabled children to get to school
  • Initially one parent was carrying their child daily.
  • Collaboration with ADD will result in provision of tricycles for those who need them.
5. Parents reluctant to bring their disabled children out into the open
  • Awareness raising and mobilisation of parents with support from ADD.
  • One member of the management committee was responsible for the recruitment of disabled children (& girls), together with ADD.
6. Lack of educational expertise within villages
  • A decision was made that the knowledge and experience of local villagers was more relevant to village children than that of urban-educated professional teachers.
  • Local villagers were selected and then trained by professionals.
7. Local communities are very poor and do not have spare time and resources
  • If the villagers genuinely want a school, then there is the basis for their motivation to support and maintain the school.
  • Villagers manage to find resources to build their own houses and to manage other areas of their lives.
  • Involvement of the whole community right from the analysis and planning stages was essential.
  • Villagers' contributions are built in from the beginning. They include building the school, contributing financially to teacher's salaries, and being responsible for its overall management.
  • On-going monitoring and support from SCF is also essential.
8. Lack of knowledge and experience of making education accessible to deaf children
  • On-going training and support from ADD. Realistic appraisal the whole life of the deaf child. There is no point in placing an older deaf child within a school.
  • Working with parents and families to develop communication with their deaf child.

Unedited version of this article.

Sue Stubbs is SC(UK)'s disability adviser and can be contacted at: SCF, 17 Grove Lane, London, SE5 8RD, London, UK. Fax: +44 (0)20 7703 2278 Email:

 


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