ANTANANARIVO, 21 September 2012 (IRIN) - It was only when her daughter, then five years old, was playing near railway tracks in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, and failed to hear the whistle of an oncoming train that Marie Louise Rasoamanalina, 46, realized the child had hearing difficulties.
Mbolatiana, now 8, attempted to enrol in school last year, but after second day of classes was sent home because of her speaking difficulties and lack of registration papers. Her mother assumed no other school would accept her, and Mbolatiana became one of the estimated 200,000 children in Madagascar excluded from education because of a disability.
But Mbolatiana received a second chance through a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) mapping programme. Children at almost 3,400 schools around the country were asked to draw maps of their neighbourhoods and identify which children did not attend school. Families of children not enrolled were encouraged by their communities to send their children to school.
"The director of the school came to see me and assured me that they would take Mbolatiana," Rasoamanalina told IRIN.
Promoting inclusive education
In preparation for Mbolatiana's enrolment, workshops by the education ministry and UNICEF are being held for the school's students, parents and teachers. Mbolatiana and her mother were also enrolled in a week-long workshop to learn sign language.
Mbolatiana's future teacher, Irene Ramanantoanina, has agreed to take on three deaf children this coming school year, which begins in October. She told IRIN, "We will all learn together," adding that she had asked parents of the other students for their consent to accept children with disabilities in the classroom.
A workshop for children with visual, physical and intellectual impairment is being scheduled, and about 400 teachers have received training on teaching disabled children.
"It's not enough to send children to school. The education needs to be such that the children can understand and learn also," UNICEF education officer Minako Morimoto told IRIN.
Post-coup education meltdown
In 2008, the government of President Marc Ravalomanana issued a decree for the introduction of the Inclusion of Children with Disabilities programme, but it was stalled the following year after the twice-elected president was overthrown by Andry Rajoelina with the backing of the army.
The education budget plummeted in the wake of the coup, when the international community responded to the illegal transfer of power with a raft of sanctions against the donor-dependent government.
All but emergency donor funding was suspended and, consequently, the education budget fell from US$82 million in 2008 to $14.9 million in 2012.
The government's inability to pay teacher salaries led to the imposition of school fees, while poor households have become poorer. The February 2012 Southern Africa Regional Food Security Update said that four-fifths of Madagascar's population now live on less than $1 a day, and poor households spend 74 percent of their income on food. As a result, school enrolment has been decreasing.
In 2010, enrolment was estimated at 73.4 percent, down from 83.3 percent in 2005, according to a UNICEF study published in March 2012. [ http://www.unicef.org/madagascar/EXCLUSION-INCLUSIONweb.pdf ]
In Madagascar's southern regions of Atsimo Atsinanana, Melaky, Atsimo Andrefana, Androy and Anosy, the primary school enrolment rate is estimated to be as low as 55 percent. A quarter of Malagasy children, about one million, are not in school. The amount of dropouts has also increased, the report said. Of every 100 children who start primary school, 25 do not progress to second grade, and only 33 make it to secondary school.
For children with disabilities, the situation is even worse, with enrolment at only 11 percent. Parents of disabled children cite numerous reasons for not sending their children to school, from stigma to the belief that sending a child with disabilities to school is a waste of time and money.
But after a three-year delay, an inclusive education programme for children with disabilities is now being implemented.
Helisoa Andrianirina, 10, will soon start first grade for the third time. Her hearing difficulties have made it difficult to pass oral exams and dictations. "She knows she's different. She isolates herself from other children because she can't hear them," her mother, Jacqueline Ravaonirina, told IRIN.