Disability campaigners in Zimbabwe speak out: ‘We are not second-class citizens’

Participants of the Equal Zimbabawe campaign launch in a group photo. Photo by Sightsavers, used with permission.

By Tessa Pope

On a sunny day in central Harare, as representatives of disability organisations from across the country took a break from meetings to relax on the terrace of their hotel, Loveness Sibanda found that her wheelchair would not fit through the terrace doors. No alternative exit was offered by the staff, and it was only because her husband was able to carry her that she could join her colleagues enjoying the sunshine.

This incident was a small but clear illustration of the myriad of barriers to equality that people with disabilities face every day in Zimbabwe. 

Loveness, a member of the Disabled Women's Support Organisation, is one of a coalition of campaigners representing 20 organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) who had come together to launch Equal Zimbabwe. This campaign is calling on the government to create and implement new legislation that will guarantee disability rights in the country. There are estimated to be more than 1.4 million people with disabilities in Zimbabwe. Due to outdated laws, inaccessible environments, and discriminatory attitudes, many have limited access to basic human rights, such as work, healthcare, or education.

As Florence Mudzingwa, who is the director of Hope Resurrect Trust and part of the campaign’s steering committee, explains to me in an interview, “Persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe are considered second-class. We face barriers in infrastructure, environment, and transportation. For example, many buildings do not have lifts and only staircases, or are difficult to navigate. We also experience attitudinal and physical discrimination, as well as internalised oppression.” 

Leonard Maranga is the national director of the Federation of Organisations of Disabled People in Zimbabwe (FODPZ) and is now also chairperson of the Equal Zimbabwe Steering Committee. In my conversation with him, he outlined the role that deep-seated stigma and discrimination often play in holding people with disabilities back: “It was very tough growing up with my disability as I had to contend with all the negative stereotypical perceptions that exist. My community, including my family, did not quite appreciate my condition, and they felt that I was less than a human being; I was treated as subhuman. I was not given the same opportunities to participate equally or on an equal basis with others. It was very difficult.”

These challenges are not unique to Zimbabwe, but what is admirable at this moment is the willingness of so many different OPDs in Zimbabwe, who represent a range of people and regions, to come together to call for major policy change.

The key demand of Equal Zimbabwe is for the outdated Disabled Persons Act of 1992 to be repealed and for a new Persons with Disabilities Act to be adopted. This new Act would bring the country’s laws in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which the country signed in 2013, and with the nation’s more recently adopted Disability Policy of 2021. Though many disability activists believe the policy is a relevant and useful document, it is just a plan and cannot be enforced. The new Persons with Disabilities Act would be legally enforceable.

The current Disabled Persons Act was created before the UNCRPD and so does not reflect the modern-day understanding of disability rights. For example, the act focuses mainly on physical access to buildings and public transportation but does not cover wider rights, such as the needs of people with mental health disabilities or inclusive education. It is based on a medical model of disability, not a human rights-based approach.

One example is that the Disability Policy includes the need for an inclusive education policy to be in place, but there is currently no law that can compel the government to do this. At present, children with disabilities, especially girls, are still far more likely to be out of school than other children.

Leonard adds, “The government of Zimbabwe has made some really commendable progress on disability rights, but there is still a long way to go.”

The Equal Zimbabwe campaign is coordinated in partnership with Sightsavers, an NGO that has experience in supporting grassroots organisations that campaign on disability rights throughout Africa and Asia. The campaign initially brought disability leaders from across Zimbabwe together to come up with the key challenge preventing people with disabilities from realising their equal human rights. 

Sightsavers Zimbabwe’s Campaign Lead, Isaacs Mwale explains: “Together we concluded that it was the lack of a new, updated disability act that has been plaguing the disability sector for a very long time. It’s something they have been advocating for over the last 15 years — but they were losing hope. This campaign is renewing that hope.”

This goes hand in hand with a call for increased awareness of disability rights in society and to challenge the ableism which so many people face. 

Pedzisai Mangayi is the headmaster of a rural primary school and founder of Hope in Motion, which is part of the campaign. He says, “Besides the issue of the new disability bill going through, we still need to fight for equality in terms of access to services, in terms of empowerment of people with disabilities. The society we live in is too backwards. We still need to change perceptions”.

Florence adds: “The campaign, I believe, will raise more awareness in terms of disability: the challenges that persons face in their daily lives, in their workplaces, in any sphere or level of society. And as we are working together with other policymakers and disability organizations, together with one voice, so much can be achieved. It is going to revitalize the perception of disability in our nation.”

In only its first few days, the campaign has already been effective in getting disability rights back on politicians’ agendas. The Parliament of Zimbabwe gazetted the Persons with Disabilities Bill barely two days after the Equal Zimbabwe launch event. This means it has been officially announced and made public and will soon be up for debate, a tangible example of the power of united grassroots campaigning. 

In response to this success, Mercy Maunganidze, director of the Zimbabwe Albino Association and an Equal Zimbabwe steering committee member, expressed her joy, “We are on the right path; we are going in the right direction to see persons with disabilities live a better life in future.”


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