HARARE - The adoption of a new constitution by Zimbabwe last year provided a ray of hope to thousands of people living with disability, who have for long felt discriminated.
Compared to the Lancaster House-drafted constitution, the new constitution specifically provided for disability as a prohibited ground of discrimination meaning that persons with disabilities are now fully included in all the sectors of the economy such as education, health, employment and political participation.
Among other key provisions, the constitution also captured sign language as one of the official languages in the country, and mandates the development of communication suitable for persons with physical or mental disabilities.
However, the celebrations were short-lived when two Senators – specially elected under the new constitution to represent persons with disabilities – Nyamayabo Mashavakure and Annah Shiri were initially omitted from Parliament’s thematic committees.
It was only after a nationwide public outcry on the apparent disregard of the disabled by Parliament that Senate President Edna Madzongwe was forced to include the two senators into Parliamentary portfolio committees.
Disability activists and people living with disability said while the new constitution provided for the rights and privileges of people with physical or mental disabilities, more needs to be done by government and the society to ensure that disabled people are economically empowered and socially accepted.
Esau Mandipa, a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Midlands State University asserts that in the aftermath of a new constitution Zimbabwe need to adopt a national policy on disability.
“A national policy is very important with regards to implementation of disability laws. Such a policy has also to take into consideration groups of PWDs who face double discrimination for example women and children with disabilities, and the old aged with disabilities,” he said.
Mandipa noted that there was also need to take affirmative action programmes in favour of people living with disabilities.
“There should be affirmative action policies in Zimbabwe laying a firm foundation for the increased participation of people living with disabilities in critical sectors like education, employment, health and politics.
“Zimbabwe therefore has to take affirmative action in favour of groups marginalised on the basis of gender, age, disability or any other reason created by history, tradition or custom, for the purpose of redressing imbalances which exist against them,” said Mandipa.
Farai Mukuta, the director of the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (Nascoh), said 1,8 million people living with disabilities was a huge number that should not be ignored by authorities.
Fambaineni Magweva, disability technical advisor at Nascoh, said the disabled were willing and able to participate in government processes and during the Constitution-making process, 7 126 persons with disabilities participated, some as polling agents and presiding officers.
Magweva said a quarter of Zimbabwe’s polling stations, 2 522, were assessed and more than half of the polling stations were inaccessible to the disabled.
“While we understand that government has other pressing issues at the moment and cannot afford to take care of us, we feel that we have been neglected by those in government,” said visually-impaired Charles Sibanda who begs for alms at corner Samora Machel Street and Leopold Takawira Ave in Harare.
Clad in dirty and old clothes, Sibanda is one of hundreds of disabled people who eke a living by begging in the busy and dusty streets of Harare.
In previous years, most disabled people in the southern African country were cared for in special homes, including the Jairos Jiri Centre, Copota School for the Blind, Danhiko and the Chinyaradzo Childrens Home.
Such institutions used to get financial support from the government and the corporate world, but the economic decline that began in Zimbabwe in 2000 made life in the homes difficult and forced most residents to opt for life on the streets.
Sibanda who walks with the aid of his 13 year old son noted that it seemed as though the government and the public have forgotten about helping people living with disability.
“There is no group that has officially assumed responsibility for doing the things that are important for disabled people such as when we go to government offices, police stations and the centre that issues national identification cards,” he said.
The declining economic situation in the country has also witnessed many disabled people resorting to vending as part of efforts to survive.
The vendors, who often sell an array of their goods from tomatoes to sweets and clothing on street pavements, consistently play hide and seek with municipal police charged with maintaining order in the city and are always on the search for illegal vendors.
Most of the men and women who ply their trade on the streets have learnt how to duck and dive and run away from the law enforcement agents on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, Anna Mapondera, a single mother of two who was left wheelchair-bound by a 2007 car accident, said she recently had all her $50 worth wares confiscated by the municipal police and was forced to fork out $20 in fines.
“It left me wondering if this misfortune will ever end,” she said nearly in tears. “I am only trying to live an earnest life with the best of my ability but it seems government wants to continuously frustrate our human rights,” she added.
In his 2014 National Budget, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa did not mention anything about the disabled and currently there are no projects for disabled people.
However, despite all the gloomy circumstances surrounding the disabled in Zimbabwe, a few individuals have risen above their situations and are proving to be a shining light in an otherwise difficult environment.
32 year-old disability activist and a legal practitioner Abraham Mateta said the government must adopt a rights based approach to disability.
“Currently, the prevailing model is the charity model where government has left disability work mainly in the hands of charitable organisations such as missionaries and private voluntary organizations. The optimum situation is that the government should take a leading role in disability issues,” he said, adding that disability was poorly regulated in Zimbabwe.
“The national disability board created in terms of the Disabled Persons Act is not empowered as it does not have any secretariat. The government must also encourage employment of persons with disabilities through tax incentives or rebates to companies which employ persons with disabilities,” he said.
54-year-old Senator Mashavakure, who was elected under provisions catering for disabled persons’ representation under the new constitution, believes there should be some effort made to provide persons with disabilities with self-sustaining projects.
“It is healthy to be occupied with some sort of work and, it helps prevent people from considering the street as an option where they can while up their time. Thus, the idea of sheltered employment facilities for the less qualified should be re-visited or revived,” the senator said.
A recent study conducted by Progressio Zimbabwe, a non-governmental organisation, noted that In Zimbabwe, there are still a good number of disabled children who do not attend school.
“As they get older they continue to be dependent on others, thus becoming an economic drain on their communities simply because they have been denied the opportunity to contribute,” read part of the report.