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Disability-inclusive electoral processes still a pipe dream

By Nyasha Dube and Priscilla Makondo, Zvishavane

“We feel like we are just vote boosters, we are only used to reach the target but for now persons with disabilities are not really included in the formulation of electoral laws and processes”, says Ednet Chingobo, a registered voter from Zvishavane, who is also visually impaired.

This comes at a time when the country is preparing for the upcoming 26 March by-elections and the 2023 harmonized elections, with a lot of ongoing civic processes such as mass voter registration campaigns, voter education and awareness.

For persons with disabilities in Zvishavane, inclusion in electoral processes is a fallacy as they say their different impairments are not considered and catered for in producing electoral education materials and during registration as well as voting.

Chingobo says whilst the government is making efforts to ensure that persons with different impairments also participate in civic processes, there are a lot of gaps which need to be filled.

“If we are to talk about inclusion, responsible electoral authorities and government must produce voter material in braille because taking a confidant to assist me with voting is a violation of my privacy. As it is most persons with visual impairments have never come across braille and they do not know how to use it,” she said.

She also lamented the poor treatment they get from polling officers, whom she said are not equipped to assist them.

“Most polling officers are not equipped to assist us because they do not know our needs. Persons with disabilities must be employed at these polling stations because they understand us better. Sometimes the able-bodied think they are helping when they are actually insulting us because disability is not inability,” she said

Despite the existence of legislation that provide persons with disabilities rights to participate in civic processes, their participation remains low because of the cultural and structural barriers that stand in their way.

Section 22 of the constitution states that every institution at every level should recognize the rights of persons with disabilities and they must be treated with respect and dignity and should be assisted to achieve their maximum potential and minimise the disadvantages they suffer. Section 67 which speaks on political rights also state that every citizen has the right to participate in elections and be represented, including persons with disabilities.

According to the 2017 Zimstat Intercensal Demographic, 9% of the country’s population, which is about more than 1. 2 million out of over 13 million people have some form of disability.

Their electoral participation also remains very low as indicated by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission statistics. As of 2018, out of the 450 000 eligible voters, only 29 803 were registered voters and the number of those who actually turned out to vote is much lower.

The National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH), 20% of persons with disabilities have no identity documents, which is another barrier standing in their way of civic participation.

Zvishavane District Elections Officer Rigressa Dube says according to the electoral law, the commission must provide adequate facilities to cater for persons with disabilities, however, their turnout tends to be low.

“We do have braille and if there’s someone who needs it we can always provide but most cannot read it. For now, the visually impaired can bring a confidant to assist them, but in the event that they don’t have one, they can be assisted by the presiding polling officer and two other witnesses to ensure transparency,” he said.

Dube added that ramps have also been put up at most polling stations to cater for wheelchair users, and there are small ballot boxes which allow them to vote whilst seated.

Observations made by CITE at registration centres in Makwasha, Kandodo, Maglaz, Government complex among others, show that some stations do not have ramps which might make it difficult for wheelchair users. At the current voter registration centre there also lacks a representative for persons with disabilities to assist the visually, orally and those with hearing impairments.

Zimbabwe is one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013, however, there are a few legislations which address the needs of persons with disabilities.

Last year President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the country’s National Disability Policy which sought to address the barriers faced by persons with disabilities and promote inclusion of this group. The policy ensures the provision of facilities like ramps and braille in all public spaces.

Persons with disabilities have appealed to responsible authorities to ensure inclusion in reality not only on paper.

“Some institutions act like they want to include us but they just want to use us to get funding which we never benefit from. We should also be educated on our rights so that we stand up for ourselves. Personally, I have taken it on myself to spread awareness wherever I go so that my peers get fair treatment,” said Chingobo.

Joice Sibanda, who uses crutches, says she faces a lot of challenges in reaching and accessing civic spaces, as such she ends up not exercising her voting rights.

“Most, if not all polling stations and public institutions are not user friendly for crutches and wheelchair users, and there are no interpreters and sign language experts to assist those who cannot hear or talk. I suggest that the responsible authorities review their hiring policies and ensure that we are represented at every institution by people who can relate to our needs,” said Sibanda.

The Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) has been on record calling for all responsible stakeholders to create democratic and inclusive spaces for all special groups.

According to a ZESN February 2022 statement on Voter registration requirements and implications for inclusion in electoral processes, the needs of the visually impaired are the most left out, and cautioned ZEC to introduce braille readable papers and draft inclusive electoral reforms. ZESN also encouraged persons with disabilities to self organise and definethe kind of support they need for inclusion in electoral processes.

Poor political representation of persons with disabilities is another challenge, and their quota system in Zimbabwe is very low. As of now, there is one person with a disability in senate and no representative in the national assembly.

Civil Society Organisations say there is a need to accommodate and encourage persons with disabilities to participate in civic processes because their voices also matter.

“For years, persons with disabilities have made significant contributions towards policy development and this has notably demystified the myths associated with this group. We need to engage them more and allow them to design their own frameworks on how they would like to be included,” said Hands of Hope Trust director Millicent Nhutsve.

Nhutsve added that government must make a deliberate effort to monitor the inclusivity of persons with disabilities at voter registration and polling centres, and also nominate them in certain leadership positions so they also coordinate conversations on disability inclusion rather than having able-bodied people leading such conversations.

“Educational and vocational training centres which cater for persons with disabilities should also include civic education so that information is readily available and we’ll packaged for people with different impairments,” Nhutsve said.

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