17 December 2013

Malawi: Blind Retired Teacher's Pension Cancelled Due to Lost Government Records

Catherine Uteka is a formidable woman. She is a qualified teacher, a grassroots activist, a widow and a mother of one. She is also partially deaf, totally blind and living with HIV.

Life for Catherine, 43, a former primary and secondary school teacher, has not been all rosy. She was infected with HIV in the year 2000 and four years later she was heavily attacked by meningitis and eventually lost three senses: smell, sight and hearing.

"I was then told by [Malawi] government officials that I should resign from my job because the state does not employ people who are blind - only non-governmental organisations do," says Catherine.

Trained, frustrated and forced to resign

Catherine then took her story to the Ministry of Persons with Disabilities who listened and sympathised with her. "Officials from the Ministry of Persons with Disabilities said despite what I had experienced, including losing my sight, I could still work in government. The Ministry then sent me to Mulanje Vocational School, where I learnt Braille," explains Catherine.

The Ministry of Education also sent her to Domasi College of Higher Education in the old capital Zomba for further studies.

"But despite acquiring all these qualifications, calls for my resignation from my job by Malawi government officials continued," says Catherine. According to a file from Malawi civil service dated 30 August 2010, the extremely able Catherine was forcibly retired on medical grounds.

The termination letter, signed on behalf of secretary for education, science and technology, is written as if Catherine was glad to have her position terminated, stating: "I am pleased to inform you that the board has recommended that you should retire as you cannot discharge your duties effectively as a teacher... . May I take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely for the services you have been rendering to this Ministry and the entire Malawi nation."

Pension underpayment

Catherine began receiving her pension in October 2010 after her forced resignation, but she was underpaid.

Three year later, her files are missing from the Malawi government system - including the human resources department, teaching service commission, public service management, accountant general, auditor general and district education manager for Lilongwe, in whose area Catherine taught from 1994 to 2010.

Catherine is no longer getting her pension from the Malawi government payroll on the grounds that there are no records she worked for them; yet she served the state for close to two decades.

After being robbed, cared for by a sister

"Because of my blindness," Catherine says, "thieves invaded my house in the village and took all my property, including money. Life is tough. As someone living with HIV, I need nutritional support, a balanced diet and a healthy environment to stay in."

The former teacher currently lives with her younger sister. She faces all sorts of stigma, ranging from the community ridiculing her to being excluded from social gatherings.

In response, Catherine blames herself and feels ashamed. This is just one iota of the stigma and discrimination associated with people living with HIV in Malawi.

But Catherine says that one of her saddest moments was when she became ill and lost weight. She then took an incorrect dose of her HIV medication because the package had no Braille for visually impaired people like her.

"I once overdosed on my antiretroviral drugs. I made such a mistake because the bottles containing the antiretroviral medication had no Braille labels for a blind person like me. I vomited almost to the point of death. I thank God that I am still alive because I then lost my CD4 count from 850 to just 51 because of vomiting," explains Catherine.

From victim to campaigner

Catherine now campaigns for the rights of blind people and people living with HIV after the experiences she has gone through.

"I strongly believe HIV is the same for the blind, the deaf and the sighted, so we must be treated equally. After all, internationally people advocate for universal access to treatment, care and support," she says.

Catherine adds that if she met Malawi president Joyce Banda, who is also co-chairperson of the UNAIDS and Lancet Commission, she would tell her that special consideration should be given to people with disabilities. She also says she would appeal to Banda to create a policy about inclusive HIV medication in Malawi.

"We need special care and, if our plight is to be heard, we need someone very powerful from the government to stand up for us. We have the right to enjoy all the rights in the country just like others in Malawi society," says Catherine.

And, in a country where some people believe that sex with a person with a disability cures HIV and AIDS, Catherine wants the Malawi government to protect deaf-blind people from sexual violence and severely punish sexual offenders.

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