By Mpho Shelile
The Kingdom of Lesotho has assumed international legal obligations to ensure access to quality, inclusive education for children with disabilities, by acceding to treaties including: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD); the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
Lesotho is bound to submit periodic reports on its compliance with the provisions of these treaties, upon which the bodies responsible for monitoring their implementation, provide concluding observations and recommendations. The concluding observations may include concrete, focused and implementable guidance on realizing the right to inclusive education. In serial breach of its reporting obligations, which has expressed concern on the limited access to education for children with disabilities. According to an unofficial list of special and inclusive schools provided to the ICJ in late 2022, there are six (6) special schools (including one resource centre), and fifteen (15) inclusive schools operating in Lesotho.
It is therefore likely that many children with disabilities remain out of school, or in schools that cannot appropriately accommodate their educational needs. Given the limited number of these schools, and their lack of capacity to accommodate learners with all types of disabilities, the majority of children with disabilities are not able to attend them. Parents and guardians often struggle to get their children into schools, and ensure that they stay in school.
Research conducted by the ICJ also reveals that the quality of education received by children with disabilities at both inclusive and special schools, whether public or private, falls below the requirements under international law and standards, as well as Lesotho’s domestic laws. The Constitution of Lesotho provides for the equality of, and prohibits discrimination against, persons with disabilities. The Constitution also includes “provision of education” as a “Principle of State Policy”. To give effect to constitutional provisions and Lesotho’s international law obligations, the Lesotho legislature has enacted a variety of laws including: the Disability Equity Act; the Education Act; and the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act.
The ICJ’s research suggests that a full review of legislation is necessary to ensure compliance with international law and domestic constitutional law. The government of Lesotho has also adopted an Inclusive Education Policy, designed to ensure that it fully encompasses children with disabilities. While sparse official information is available on the implementation of this policy, little progress has been made, partly due to the absence of an implementation framework.
Interviews with staff of the Special Education Unit, reveal that the unit is severely unstaffed and more generally under-resourced. As a result, the reality faced by principals, teachers and learners at the school level is far removed from Lesotho’s legal and policy commitments. While a significant percentage of the government’s budget is allocated to education in general, little of this budget is allocated for – or spent on – inclusive education. Staff at schools indicate that the allocation of funds is mainly intended to pay teachers’ salaries.
Even inconsistent support sometimes provided to schools in the form of a subvention has not materialized in recent years. Government allocations for special and inclusive schools do not account for the costs associated with providing the educational support required for children with disabilities. Schools commonly attempt to fundraise from external donors and supplement their budgets by dedicating time to potentially income generating activities to bridge this funding. While government and government partners (such as UNICEF) provide assistive devices to schools on the basis, special and inclusive schools still report inadequate access for children with disabilities to basic assistive devices, such as glasses or other magnification devices, hearing aids and wheelchairs. Limited learning materials are provided to the schools, and the current curriculum has not been fully adapted to ensure its accessibility for children with disabilities
The ICJ recommends that the authorities take necessary steps to: Implement more effective awareness-raising programs on disability rights and inclusive education; Provide adequate resources to ensure access to inclusive education for children with disabilities; Invest in and carry out regular pre- and continuous in-service training for teachers on inclusive education; Scale up the Special Education Unit’s capacity to monitor the quality of inclusive education in Lesotho, including by making regular visits to special and inclusive schools; Conduct a review of all legislation applicable to education for children with disabilities to ensure compliance with human rights law and standards.
Current challenges in implementing exclusive education in Lesotho are lack of funding, teachers and schools. Therefore Lesotho authorities should take effective measures to implement Lesotho’s international legal obligations to ensure that children with disabilities can effectively exercise their right to inclusive education. Lesotho has already taken some modest steps towards that end. Such steps include: introducing a policy to establish an inclusive education system introducing a policy for free primary education embarking on the process to develop an implementation plan for the Inclusive Education Policy; enacting a law with the specific aim of incorporating the CRPD into domestic law, namely the Persons with Disability Equity Act; establishing a scheme that provides financial support to vulnerable children, and collaborating with local civil society and IGO partners to raise awareness about disability.