Zimbabwe is gearing up for its harmonized elections in 2023, which will be a test of its commitment to democracy and human rights. Among the millions of voters who will cast their ballots, there is a group that often faces discrimination, marginalization and exclusion: people with disabilities.
According to the 2022 census, 9.2 per cent of the population has impairments of varying degrees, However, their participation in the electoral process has been hampered by various barriers, such as inaccessible polling stations, lack of assistive devices, negative attitudes and stereotypes, and inadequate information and education.
These challenges have been documented by various stakeholders, including civil society organisations, disability rights groups, election observers and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
In its report on the 2018 harmonized elections, ZEC acknowledged that some polling stations were not accessible to persons with disabilities, especially those using wheelchairs or crutches.
It also noted that some voters with visual impairments were not provided with tactile ballot guides or Braille ballot papers, and had to rely on assistants to mark their ballots.
ZEC also admitted that it did not conduct voter education specifically targeting persons with disabilities and that it did not have disaggregated data on the number of voters with disabilities who registered and voted. It recommended that these issues be addressed in future elections.
The situation of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe’s elections is not only a matter of electoral administration but also a matter of human rights. Zimbabwe is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which it ratified in 2013.
The CRPD is an international treaty that sets out the rights and obligations of states and other actors to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities.
Article 29 of the CRPD specifically deals with the right of persons with disabilities to participate in political and public life, including the right to vote and be elected. It requires states to ensure that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use; that person with disabilities can vote by secret ballot without intimidation; that they can choose their own assistants or be provided with assistance by impartial staff; and that they can effectively access voter education and information.
To fulfil its obligations under the CRPD, Zimbabwe has developed a National Disability Policy (NDP), which was launched by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in June 2021.
The NDP is a comprehensive policy framework that seeks to address the marginalisation and discrimination of persons with disabilities, empower them to improve their own quality of life and enable them to contribute towards the national development agenda.
The NDP covers various sectors and themes, including political participation. It states that the government will ensure that persons with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in decision-making processes at all levels; that they have access to information on political parties, candidates and electoral processes; that they are provided with reasonable accommodation and support services during elections; and that they are protected from violence, abuse and harassment.
The NDP also calls for the establishment of a disability focal unit or focal point in all government ministries and agencies, including ZEC. This would enable the mainstreaming of disability issues in all programmes and activities related to elections. The NDP also envisages the enactment of a Disability Act that would provide for the legal recognition and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities.
Talent Maphosa, Director of the Institute for Community Development in Zimbabwe (ICODZIM) an organisation that advocates for the rights of PWDs noted that during the voting process, people with visual impairments find the font to be too small is too small, filling the voter registration form.
Thus they end up being assisted voters, a phenomenon which has been highly contentious in Zimbabwe’s elections gone by.
“Although help is offered, one would feel as if they are a nuisance. This is very discouraging. The community looks down upon persons with albinism thus they wouldn’t dare to stand as candidates or voters.
“Generally people with albinism are short-sighted. During the 2018 general elections, the Presidential ballot paper had 23 candidates. Inevitably the font of the pictures and text had to be reduced and voters with albinism struggled to pick their preferred candidate,” Maphosa said.
Melanie Murerwa, a PWD activist weighed in saying that as Zimbabwe prepares for its next elections, it has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and human rights by ensuring that persons with disabilities can vote with dignity.
“This would not only benefit them as individuals and as a group but also enrich the diversity and quality of Zimbabwe’s democracy as a whole,” she said.
One of the organisations that has been advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe’s elections is the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN).
In 2018, ZESN produced a position paper on the participation of persons with disabilities in elections, which highlighted the challenges and gaps in the legal and policy framework, the electoral administration and management, the voter education and information, and the political representation and participation of persons with disabilities. The paper also proposed recommendations and best practices to address these issues.
The network has also been engaging with various stakeholders, such as ZEC, political parties, media, security forces and observers, to raise awareness and sensitise them on the rights and needs of persons with disabilities in elections.
In addition, ZESN has also been collaborating with disability rights groups and organisations of persons with disabilities to amplify their voices and demands.
Aside from this, ZESN has also been documenting and sharing its experiences and lessons learned on disability inclusion in electoral processes with other stakeholders, both nationally and regionally.
Bruce Nyoni, Director of Albino Trust of Zimbabwe told this publication that organizations for persons with albinism and persons with disabilities in general need to increase or strengthen their relations with political parties to have equal representation and we need to advocate for disability policies at political levels that will regulate how these parties engage with people with disabilities including non-discrimination as well as non-violence, use of user-friendly terminology that will not discriminate these people during and beyond their electoral processes.
“When we talk about the EMB, they should have a disability policy at an organizational level and ensure comprehensive mainstreaming of PWDs including those with albinism in their structures so that when we talk about these issues, they are not coming in as advocate issues but as lived realities that they face on a daily basis and this will go a long way for ensuring inclusion as far as electoral processes are concerned,” Nyoni said.
According to Maphosa, in high-volume areas, voting queues are usually long and people end up spending hours standing which tends to affect people with albinism more as they must not be exposed to the sun for long
To bridge the gap, her organization is in the process of conducting a polling station disability audit and developing an Inclusive Election policy guide that it will share with parliament, ZEC and other stakeholders.
“The policy guide will include ways in which election processes in Zimbabwe can be accessible and offer reasonable accommodation to the different needs of women with disability including women with albinism,” she said.