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Disability convention in limbo

While empowerment has become a buzzword in Zimbabwe and is at the heart of all developmental efforts and discourse, for the 2.3 million people with disabilities (PWDs) in Zimbabwe, who suffer from a documented lack of access to fundamental freedoms and rights that everyone else in society takes for granted, empowerment still remains a mirage. At the centre of the generalized disempowerment of this extremely marginalized group is the non-implementation of a seminally important international legal instrument, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which Zimbabwe signed on September 23, 2013, but which, fully 4 years later, has not put in place the necessary measures to ensure its implementation.


By Lovemore Rambiyawo

The CRPD, the bedrock of disability rights and a roadmap to disability inclusion, is the first globally binding human rights instrument to comprehensively address the civil, cultural, political, social and economic rights of PWDs. Its application has immense implications for removal of barriers, equalisation of opportunities and disability inclusion. PWDs in Zimbabwe, after waiting an inordinately long time for its signing, are now, once again, waiting with bated breath for its implementation. At the centre of this inertia are a number of issues.

There is no designated coordinating mechanism in the country; no national strategy to implement the convention; no framework, including independent mechanisms, for promoting, protecting and

monitoring the convention; no disability mainstreaming policy to complement implementation; ministries have yet to put in place disability inclusive policies to support the implementation of the convention across their service provision areas; and the role of civil society in the implementation process remains undefined. To cap it off, the principal beneficiaries of the CRPD, the 2.3 million PWDs in Zimbabwe, constituting 15% of the country’s total population (WHO statistics) are largely not conversant with the CRPD and its watershed provisions.

At the other end of the spectrum, the majority of the 160 countries that are signatories to the convention have already established focal points and coordination mechanisms for implementing the convention in compliance with Article 33(1) of the CRPD. They have already drawn national strategies to implement the convention in terms of Article 35 (1) and have also drawn up their First State Reports. They have also already produced, or are working on, a mainstreaming policy for the inclusion of PWDs. They have already designated institutions or centres as independent mechanism to promote, protect and monitor the implementation of the Convention. They also have designated national disability bodies to monitor the implementation of the convention in terms of section 33(3). These countries are well on their way to ensuring implementation of the convention and promoting holistic disability inclusion in their countries. By prevaricating on the implementation of the CRPD, Zimbabwe is denying PWDs vital opportunities for disability inclusion, equalization of opportunities and, critically, empowerment. Whilst the presidium has done its part by signing the convention, the onus is now on government ministries and the legislature to put in place measures that ensure full and effective participation and inclusion of PWDs across all articles of the convention.

The CRPD also enumerates specific substantive rights elaborated across the full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights (Articles 10 to 30). Finally, it establishes a system of monitoring and implementation (Articles 31 to 40) and includes provisions that govern the operation of the CRPD (Articles 41 to 50). The rights-based approach espoused by the CRPD seeks a society designed and structured to enable all categories of PWDs to access various facilities and opportunities including public transportation systems, pedestrian signs, educational institutions, employment opportunities, hospitals, malls, government buildings, etc. The entry into force of the convention and its Optional Protocols in May 2008 marked the beginning of a new era in the efforts “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all PWDs, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity” as laid out in article 1 of the convention. The convention has a number of strengths:

• It espouses a rights based approach to disability, which recognises that the social exclusion and the unique challenges faced by PWDs are not the natural and unavoidable consequence of their physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment, but the result of the failure of societies to be inclusive and to accommodate individual differences. Critically, in contradistinction to the discredited welfare approach to disability, it views inclusion of PWDs in society as an obligation and not an option; promotion of autonomy of PWDs a right as opposed to external control; ensuring of empowerment a prerogative in contrast to the disempowering effect of the welfare approach; fixing the environment a key factor as opposed to fixing the disability; facilitating activity for PWDs a key requirement as opposed to limiting activity; dignifying the PWD in contrast to belittling; promoting independence and not dependence and fostering inclusion and integration instead of institutionalisation and segregation.

•The convention provides for the putting in place of policies, laws and programmes that remove barriers and guarantee the exercise of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights by PWDs. To achieve genuine exercise of rights, the policies, laws and programs that limit rights need to be replaced.

•It provides that programs, awareness-raising and social support are necessary to change the way society operates and to dismantle the barriers that prevent PWDs from participating fully in society.

•PWDs need to be provided with the opportunities to participate fully in society and with adequate means to claim their rights.

If implemented, the convention offers a range of options for action towards improving the situation of PWDs across the entire human rights spectrum. The government can use the convention as a detailed guideline to secure full inclusion of PWDs at all levels; development practitioners can gain knowledge on incorporating PWDs in their programs; disability organisations can use the convention to advocate, network and collaborate with government, civil society, the business community, and wider society to work towards the acknowledgement of the rights of PWDs; and PWDs and their families can use the convention to learn about their rights and demand that these rights be respected. The CRPD is, ultimately, not a convention meant for PWDs only: it is a convention for the whole of humanity.

Its observance will ensure that there is dignity and justice for all. Empowerment of PWDs can only happen once society takes concerted efforts to implement the convention at all levels.

The National Association of Non Governmental Organisations (NANGO) is the official coordinating umbrella body of Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) operating in Zimbabwe. Its aim is to strengthen, represent and coordinate the work of NGOs in Zimbabwe by creating space, dialogue and engagement to enable the fulfilment of members’ visions and missions.

For comments and feedback please reach us through: director.nango@gmail.com

Lovemore Rambiyawo is the Resource Mobilisation and Communications Coordinator for the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped.(NASCOH). NASCOH is a NANGO Member under Disability sector

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