Rights of persons with disabilities in Zambia

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Rights of persons with disabilities in Zambia

Lusaka, 28 April 2016

Members of the press, 
Ladies and gentlemen,

In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, I conclude today my first official visit to Zambia, which took place from 18 to 28 April 2016. I am an independent expert who reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and advises on progress, opportunities and challenges encountered in the implementation of the rights of people with disabilities worldwide.

I would like to begin by warmly thanking the Government of Zambia for the invitation extended to me to visit the country to assess, in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, the level of enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities, the opportunities and existing challenges; and for the excellent cooperation extended to me prior and during the visit. 
During my stay, I paid a courtesy visit to the First lady of Zambia and met with numerous senior Government representatives from the Executive and Judicature, as well as a traditional Chief, representatives of the independent National Human Rights Commission, members of international organizations, development agencies and international cooperation actors, a wide range of organizations of and for persons with disabilities and other civil society actors. I held meetings in Lusaka and Ndola, and visited the psychiatric facilities in these cities, the National Vocational Rehabilitation Centre, the Kang’onga settlement for persons with disabilities, a care home for children with disabilities, and a special school. I was also invited to participate in the Lusaka Social Protection Colloquium, which focused on the recently adopted National Policy on Disability.

I would like to especially thank all the persons with disabilities and their representative organizations with whom I met, who shared with me their situation, concerns and desires for change. I also take this opportunity to thank the UN Resident Coordinator and her Office, UNDP and the entire UN Country Team for the crucial support they provided to make my visit a success. 

I am now pleased to present some of my preliminary observations and recommendations, which will be elaborated in more detail in a report that I will present at the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2017. These preliminary observations neither reflect all the issues presented to me, nor all the initiatives undertaken by the Government of Zambia.

Contextual analysis and achievements

Zambia has ratified the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) in 2010 and almost all other international human rights treaties. Only three Optional Protocols are pending ratification: the Optional Protocols to the CRPD, to the Convention against torture, and to the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Zambia is also overdue to present its first and second reports to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I encourage the authorities to submit a combined report to the CRPD as soon as possible and to ratify these three international protocols.

In relation to the national normative framework, the new amended Constitution adopted in January this year introduced some positive changes that contribute to strengthening the protection system for the rights of persons with disabilities. These include for instance the mention of disability as a ground of non-discrimination, and the fortification of the powers of the National Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission of Zambia.

Importantly, the additional constitutional amendments that will be subjected to referendum in August present an important opportunity to broaden the protection of human rights in Zambia. I would like to commend the Government for considering the abolition of the dead penalty and I strongly encourage the national authorities to include economic, social and cultural rights in the Bill of Rights. Despite these positive developments, I am deeply concerned about some of the remaining constitutional dispositions that are discriminatory towards persons with disabilities, as I will illustrate further on.

Overall I have found that Zambia has a wide range of well-formulated and well-intended policies and strategies to realise the rights of persons with disabilities. I commend the adoption, in recent years, of the Persons with Disabilities Act, the National Policy on Disability, the National Implementation Plan on Disability, as well other inclusive policies, such as those on Social Protection, on Free Basic Education, or on Youth. The Government has also commissioned a National Disability Survey. I encourage the prompt dissemination of its final results and to include the short set of questions of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics in all other demographic surveys, which will allow the State to disaggregate all national collected data by disability and to obtain international comparable data.  

Zambia has also benefited from several important social reforms, particularly through the introduction of a National Social Protection Policy and the expansion of social cash transfer and other funds for persons with disabilities to some 70 districts in the country, which have the potential to contribute to reduce poverty rates. It is also positive that the 6th National Development Plan, which aims to promote inclusive growth and significantly reduce hunger and poverty, is inclusive of persons with disabilities in all its programmes. I encourage the relevant authorities to ensure that the 7th National Development Plan for 2017-2021, currently under development, will translate the Sustainable Development Goals in the national development framework at all levels of governance and will prioritize the mainstreaming of disability into the various sectors.

Main challenges identified

Legal harmonization

Despite the adoption of important policies and legislation related to the rights of persons with disabilities, a comprehensive harmonization of the normative and policy frameworks in Zambia should be undertaken, to ensure their compliance with the Convention. Several statutory instruments, such as in the areas of education, health, accessibility and employment, need to be adopted in order to speed up implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act and other relevant policies.

I have noted the existence of different definitions of disability and the widespread use of pejorative language to refer to persons with disabilities in several official documents. Moreover, I am particularly concerned about certain legal provisions that discriminate against persons with psychosocial disabilities, such as those contained in the Mental Disorder Act, the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Prisons Act, the Citizens of Zambia Act, and the Electoral Commission Act. I urge the Government to repeal or amend them as soon as possible.

In this regard, I welcome the request for technical assistance that I have received from the Ministry of Health to comment on the new draft Mental Health Bill that aims to replace the out-dated Mental Disorders Act to ensure its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Implementation and monitoring of the CRPD

Notwithstanding the enactment of the policy and legal frameworks on disability, the main challenges that should be tackled as a matter of priority are the implementation and enforcement of these provisions. While the adoption of a national implementation plan on disability is a significant accomplishment, time-bound benchmarks and effective implementation plans should also be developed at provincial and district levels, along with the necessary budgetary and fiscal measures. Stronger coordination among the relevant ministries tasked to mainstream and implement disability provisions within their institutions should be given priority, as the lack of such coordination seems to have impeded significant progress in this regard.  

I acknowledge the current efforts to restructure the Zambia Agency for Persons with Disabilities - through the recruitment of personnel, skills training and increased budget - to gradually move away from service provision and focus on the effective implementation and coordination of disability issues within the Government. An important challenge faced by ZAPD is that it lacks inspectors to exercise its oversight function to ensure compliance by institutions with the Persons with Disabilities Act, pending the adoption of the statutory instruments enabling the enforcement of sanctions for non-compliance with the Act.

I would urge the Government to establish a mechanism to coordinate the implementation of the CRPD in Zambia through its relevant ministries, under the overall coordination of ZAPD. The government has appointed senior disability focal points within most line Ministries, tasked with the mainstreaming of disability issues in public policies, programmes and initiatives. I consider this initiative to be a good practice. However, to enhance the effectiveness of these focal points, they should be empowered with a clear mandate, terms of reference and responsibility to mainstream disability within their respective ministries, and be equipped with the necessary resources and training to perform their tasks effectively. Moreover, coordination with ZAPD could be enhanced by establishing periodic coordination and strategy meetings among all focal points and the agency.

I have also observed that the Government of Zambia is yet to designate or set up an independent mechanism, compliant with the Paris Principles, to monitor the implementation of the Convention. Given the strengthened powers allocated to the Zambian Human Rights Commission, the government could give due consideration to the official designation of this institution as the Governmental independent monitoring mechanism of the CRPD, as required by article 33 of the CRPD.

Lack of accessibility to the physical environment, information and communication

During my visit, I have observed that the majority of public and private infrastructure is not accessible for persons with physical disabilities, including new buildings, despite the adoption of accessibility standards by the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZBS). To address this situation, ZAPD should accelerate the process of recruitment and training of the inspectors tasked with monitoring of accessibility of infrastructure and issue adjustment orders and sanctions as necessary. The Ministry of Works and Supply and their technical staff in charge of monitoring the construction and maintenance of public buildings and infrastructure should apply the national accessibility standards issued by ZBS and consider undertaking an accessibility needs assessment of existing infrastructure to be refurbished, coupled with a roadmap with clear timelines.

With regard to access to information and communication, I was pleased to observe that the Zambian Kwacha is accessible to blind persons, that sign language interpretation is provided for the main news twice a day, and that efforts are made to make a few mainstream public health awareness-raising campaigns accessible to deaf persons.

However, I note with concern that the Zambian Sign Language has not yet been recognized as an official language and that interpretation services for deaf persons are inexistent in public hospitals, police stations, courts and other public locations, thus denying them the possibility to communicate effectively and to access basic services. Moreover, critical sensitization campaign on issues such as prevention of gender-based violence, communicable diseases, public health and reproductive rights, are generally not accessible to the variety of persons with disabilities, particularly for the deaf-blind, autistic persons and those with intellectual disabilities. I have also noted a general lack of knowledge about the situation of persons with cerebral palsy, and existing low-cost communication methods available to enable their participation in society. In the area of information and communication technology, efforts should be made to access open source screen readers’ software for the blind.

Stigma and discrimination

I am concerned by the stark disparities and discrimination regarding the enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities between rural and urban areas in Zambia. This has been mostly related to a lack of accessibility and a lack of essential services in rural and remote areas of the country, which disproportionally affects persons with disabilities who are in situation of poverty, including children and adolescents, older persons with disabilities and those living with HIV/ AIDS. Women and girls with disabilities also face numerous barriers in their enjoyment of their rights, in particular those of a lower economic status.

Traditional and cultural beliefs play a significant role in the way disability is perceived in the Zambian society. I have received multiple allegations of children and adults with disabilities being hidden away from society by their family members, or of mothers who give birth to children with disabilities being abandoned or divorced by their husbands, due to misconceptions and stigma attached to disability. Myths and beliefs about disability also have serious repercussions on the right to life and the physical integrity of persons with albinism who live in constant fear of being attacked and killed for their body parts, or of women and girls with disabilities who are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence due to beliefs that having sex with them could cure a person of HIV/AIDS.

To tackle these issues, there is an urgent need for wide-scale awareness raising programmes aimed at portraying a positive image of persons with disabilities and explaining the benefits to be gained by their identification and registration, with families of persons with disabilities, communities and other relevant actors. Traditional chiefs play a key role to change perceptions about persons with disabilities and remove stigma associated to them. 

Participation of persons with disabilities

As the country prepares for the general tripartite elections to be held in August 2016, I note the efforts that are being planned by the Government to ensure that the electoral process is accessible for persons with disabilities. These include for instance the introduction of braille ballot papers, accessibly measures and reasonable accommodation across polling stations, the production of education and voter registration materials in accessible formats for deaf and blind people, the illustration of persons with disabilities in general electoral information materials, the setting up of some 40 voters educators clubs in schools, and the use of sign language interpreters in relevant awareness raising campaigns. It would be important that measures are also taken to secure access to information and communication for persons with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities. Moreover, I would like to recommend that after the election, the Electoral Commission of Zambia conducts an assessment of how persons with disabilities were integrated in the electoral process, so as to identify good practices and lessons to serve as a basis for future elections.

Despite these important efforts, I am particularly concerned that persons with psychosocial or physical disabilities who are ‘incapable of performing their functions’ because of their disability are not allowed to vote and stand for elections.

In relation to participation in decision-making processes, ZAPD coordinates the consultation process with organizations of persons with disabilities. I was pleased to hear from both civil society and government officials that persons with disabilities and their representative organisations had been consulted and participated in the domestication process of the CRPD, which led to the adoption of the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2012; and that DPOs are the main drivers of the current process to amend the Act, under the overall coordination of ZAPD. I also took note of the fact that DPOs at national and provincial level have been consulted in the revision of other relevant national policies, such as the National youth policy.

However, it is of concern that the Government has not engaged and consulted with DPOs for the adoption of other mainstream policies and legislation, for instance the National Gender Policy. More efforts are required to guarantee that consultations with organizations of persons with disabilities are accessible and that measures are taken to ensure that all disability sectors are represented and can adequately contribute. The meaningful participation of women with disabilities in all decisions affecting them should be strengthened, including in the area of sexual and reproductive rights.  

The right to education

In the areas of education and training, in recent years the Government has taken several important initiatives to improve access to education for children, adolescents and adults with disabilities. I commend the introduction of mandatory courses in special education needs at the Teacher Training Colleges of Education, the development of a general revised curriculum for primary school learners with disabilities, the removal of examination fees for children with disabilities, the availability of bursaries for trainees with disabilities in vocational training, the pilot TEVET inclusive vocational training centres.

The right to social protection

I commend the efforts undertaken by Zambia to make its social protection framework inclusive of persons with disabilities. In addition to the adoption of a National Social Protection Policy in 2014, which considers disability as one of its pillars, several social protection programmes take into consideration the needs of persons with disabilities in their implementation. These include the Social Cash Transfer programme, the Public Welfare Assistance Scheme and the Food Security Pack Programme. The Government should continue to promote the mainstreaming of disability issues in all its social programmes, including the Social Protection Fund, the Women Empowerment Fund, the Youth Empowerment Fund and the Citizens Economic Empowerment Fund. The Government should also ensure that funds are available for the adequate implementation of its disability-specific funds and programmes.

In relation to effective access to health services, I acknowledge that the Persons with Disabilities Act provides for free general and specialized medical care, including rehabilitation and assistive devices, for persons with disabilities. Nevertheless, I was informed of the limited availability of specialized equipment, services and personnel across the country. Ensuring access to quality health services for persons with disabilities in remote and rural areas should be made a priority.

Regarding employment, I note the tax rebates incentives for employers who recruit persons with disabilities. In Ndola, I had the opportunity to visit the Kang’onga Production Centre and the National Vocational Rehabilitation Centre. While I am pleased with the way in which both centres are increasingly becoming less segregated by promoting the inclusion of persons without disabilities, I would like to encourage the Government to make all its institutions across the country that fall under the Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority (TEVETA) to become inclusive of persons with disabilities.

Deprivation of liberty, denial of legal capacity and forced treatment

During my visit, I noted with concern the denial of legal capacity for persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. Although there is no specific procedure for that purpose and thus few persons have been assigned a guardian, in practice it is assumed that a person with a psychosocial or intellectual impairment has no legal capacity due to the lack of “mental capacities”. This assumption pervades all aspects of life affecting the exercise of other human rights such as personal liberty, health, family and property. For instance, the Constitution provides that a person can be deprived of her or his personal liberty if “is, or is reasonably suspected to be, of unsound mind […] for the purpose of his care or treatment or the protection of the community”. In addition, it allows limitations in the administration of property of “a person of unsound mind”. These provisions are not compliant with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability is also an accepted practice in Zambia. The Mental Disorders Act, inherited from the colonial period, enables the deprivation of liberty of persons “apparently mentally disordered or defective” under the basis of being “dangerous to himself or to others” or “wandering at large and unable to take care of himself”. Similarly, under the Criminal Procedure Code, a person found unfit to trial or not guilty by reason of “insanity” can be detained indefinitely under the President’s Pleasure.

Several persons with disabilities are detained in prisons and psychiatric facilities under this procedure. According to the Persons with Disabilities Act, in case of inconsistency between the provisions of any written legislation impacting on the rights of persons with disabilities, the provisions of the Act shall prevail to the extent of the inconsistency.

Despite this clause, I strongly encourage the Government to repeal all legislation that is inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

During my visit to Chainama Hills College Hospital in Lusaka, I took note of the efforts by authorities to end institutionalisation and their interest to move towards the establishment of community-based services. I was pleased to learn that they are engaging directly with organisations of persons with psychosocial disabilities with the aim of ensuring a human rights-based approach in the provision of mental health services. However, I have observed that persons with psychosocial disabilities are hospitalized without their informed consent, and subjected to seclusion and forced treatment. Immediate measures must be taken to stop these practices that are inconsistent with international human rights standards.

I also visited the psychiatric unit of the General Hospital in Ndola, where I was appalled by the conditions in the male acute ward, which is not only overcrowded, but has insufficient bedding, and very unhygienic conditions. I was informed about the existing practice of sterilization of women with disabilities without their informed consent. I call upon the Government of Zambia to take immediate actions to address the situation in this service. I have also been informed that the conditions in the mental health settlements that fall under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health are extremely harsh. I would suggest a moratorium on new admissions until these facilities are permanently closed.

Access to justice

Access to justice is one of the major challenges for persons with disabilities in Zambia. I have been informed that when persons with disabilities, in particular women and girls, attempt to file complaints for abuse and discrimination faced, these are usually overlooked. Moreover, most of court buildings are inaccessible and lack procedures for providing procedural accommodation to persons with disabilities, including sign language interpretation. Persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are particularly affected, as they are denied access to justice on equal basis with others, as they are usually deemed as unable to instruct a lawyer or to stand trial.

I urge the Judicature to implement immediate measures to ensure access to justice for persons with disabilities, such as training programmes for those working in the field of administration of justice, including police and corrections service personnel, as well as the development of guidelines for procedural and age-appropriate accommodations to persons with disabilities.

UN system and international cooperation

Despite advances at the policy level, the allocation of adequate and sufficient financial and human resources to ensure the effective implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities in Zambia remains a challenge. Furthermore, although in recent years Zambia received remarkable amounts of aid and technical cooperation, most of the mainstream international cooperation programmes do not consider the rights of persons with disabilities in their interventions.

I strongly encourage the United Nations System in Zambia and international cooperation actors to make all of their projects inclusive of persons with disabilities and to mainstream disability in all of their cooperation strategies and programmes in Zambia. Moreover, UN efforts to support the implementation of the SDGs in Zambia should consider the rights of persons with disabilities in a cross–cutting matter, so as to truly ensure that no one is left behind. The Cooperating Partners Group –the coordinating and dialogue forum for the bilateral and multilateral cooperating partners in Zambia– represents an important venue to promote and support the effective inclusion of persons with disabilities in all international cooperation efforts. 

Members of the press,
Ladies and gentlemen,

There are good opportunities to achieve the realisation of rights of persons with disabilities in Zambia. The implementation of the 2030 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the national development plan constitutes a great opportunity to foster development that is inclusive of persons with disabilities in the country. The vast majority of the interlocutors with whom I interacted during my visit expressed a keen interest and political will to improve the situation of persons with disabilities in Zambia, and I believe that the country has a potential to become a disability champion in the African region and sub-region.

Let me conclude by reiterating that I am very grateful to the Government of Zambia for inviting me to visit the country, enabling me to deepen my understanding of the situation of persons with disabilities. This invitation – and what I have learnt during my visit – indicates that there is a very strong commitment and political will to ensure and guarantee the protection and enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities in Zambia, which is an essential precondition for their realisation. I hope that my visit and my report will assist the country in moving forward on this issue. 

I thank you for your kind attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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