Disability-Inclusive Electoral Processes Still a Pipe Dream

Regina Pasipanodya

On May 11, 2018, lawyer and disability rights activist, Abraham Mateta (pictured) filed a case against the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) pressing for the provision of ballot papers in braille or tactile to accommodate blind voters during the general elections.

The case was dismissed by High Court Judge, Justice Charles Hungwe, on July 20 2018, on the basis that ZEC had indicated that it was going to put in place measures that would ensure that all people with disabilities people are well-catered for.

However, Mateta who is also blind, feels that ZEC lost an opportunity together with the lawmakers to deal with this case.

“This year once again on August 23, blind voters are likely going to cast their votes being assisted by sighted people of their choice,” said Mateta. 

For years, ZEC has been failing to put measures that accommodate people with disability in electoral processes.


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Electoral Disability Gap in Zimbabwe

UNESCO statistics for 2021 estimate that about 1.4 million people in Zimbabwe have some form of disability.

Disability is referred to as a person with a physical, mental, or sensory disability, including a visual, hearing, or speech-functional disability, which gives rise to various barriers inhibiting them from participating at an equal level with other members of society.

In Zimbabwe, disabled people are among the most marginalised and excluded groups in society as they are treated as second-class citizens.

The gap in the electoral process is a good example of how people with disability are partially included in national practices.

A local beautician and model, Progress Kira Madibha (29), who is deaf says the electoral process in Zimbabwe has never been inclusive, especially for the deaf community.

“As for now, I have lost any interest in elections because it is frustrating to always ask the person next to you what is being said on current affairs, about elections because most of the information is disseminated vocally on television and radio without being supported by sign language.

‘When I tried to engage officials during the mobile voter education, I struggled to communicate with them since they have no idea of how to use sign language and this becomes frustrating as we had to find an interpreter for us to understand each other,” said Madibha.

Madibha’s older sister, Primrose (34) who is partially deaf said she could not register to vote because she did not get any information.

“We do not have interpreters to assist us in such important processes. Maybe if we had someone in the leadership who is deaf, we could have been included in all these processes,” she said.

Isaiah Mukobo (36) a vendor in the Harare Central Business Department (CBD) said he took advantage of the voter registration process, but due to the delimitation programme, his polling station is a bit far than where he used to go in the previous elections.

“In my area, an additional constituency was created and we now have Epworth North and Epworth South. Therefore, my polling station is now a bit further from where I used to go which means more struggles for us who are wheelchair-bound to get to the polling station,” said Mukobo.

Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013 with legislation that specifically caters to people with disabilities.

The Policy sets out standards for the inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in all facets of life, thereby serving as an overarching policy framework on disability across all sectors, including the public, private, and development sectors.

However, human rights activists in the country believe that disability policies in Zimbabwe have remained a pipe dream.

Principles of the Electoral Act of Zimbabwe on Disability

Disability Consultant, Masimba Kuchera, who is blind, explained that the principles of the Electoral Act talk about non-discrimination based on disability.

“When we talk about Section 51, the law says that the polling station has to be accessible to people with disability, but here in Zimbabwe, we see that most of the polling stations are not as convenient and accommodative of people with disabilities,” he said.

“Section 59 states that for those who are assisted in a polling station, ZEC takes a record of those people. I think in a situation like ours where sometimes political temperatures get heated unexpectedly, people with disability are then discouraged to go and cast their votes if their names are going to be recorded into some records. This shows that taking records of the person with a disability, who has voted and those that have assisted during the process distort the elements of secrecy of the ballot.”

Kuchera shares the same view with Mateta that people who are blind should be allowed to cast their votes using braille or tactical methods.

“I would prefer further independence for people with disabilities, especially the blind by either having electronic or tactile voting and ZEC can adopt these kinds of systems for the blind that can still maintain the secrecy of the ballot. But I feel that ZEC has not bothered in investing in such things; if they have, we haven’t seen the fruits of their investments.

“Other countries have already adopted the tactile method and we once used the Biometrical Voter Registration (BVR) and it was successful. I think this should be where we should be moving towards as Zimbabwe,” said Kuchera.

ZEC deputy chairperson Commissioner Ambassador Rodney Kiwa said the biggest challenge of having a ballot paper in braille is not about making it available at polling stations, but the secrecy of the ballot.

“When counting the votes after polling, those counting will know how the blind person voted as there will probably be only one ballot paper in Braille at that particular polling station which would distort the secrecy,” said Kiwa.

“Therefore, as the commission we are exploring other means that would maintain the secrecy of the ballot for blind people such as the use of tactile templates.”

ZEC’s Failure to disaggregate statistics according to disability

This year, when ZEC published the voters’ roll, but the statistics were not disaggregated according to disability.

The executive of a disability organisation in Zimbabwe believes that this could have made it easier for the commission to identify polling stations that require resources for people with specific special needs.

In an interview with She Corresponds Africa, Deaf Zimbabwe Trust Programmes Manager, Paidamoyo Chimhini said it is important to have disaggregated data by disability to ensure that there is appropriate accommodation for people with specific disabilities at each polling station.

Deaf Zimbabwe Trust is a voluntary organisation that promotes the rights and interests of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) people in Zimbabwe

“With disability, it is easy to identify it when it is physical; so people with physical disabilities can easily be assisted but what about those that cannot talk because we do not always find interpreters at polling stations to assist them?

“Had they made use of the data that they collected during the voter registration that identifies that a specific polling station has people with disabilities and special needs it could have been easier to provide the necessary resources that accommodates all,” said Chimhini.

During the nomination process of candidates, political parties in Zimbabwe also failed to walk the talk in promoting inclusivity in their parties.

During their campaigns, political parties promised that they would be inclusive in terms of gender and disability but during the nomination process, they failed to disaggregate their entrants according to disability.

This has seen most people with disabilities that have interests in politics failing to be accommodated as candidates during the nomination process.

Takawira Mutami (26), a psychologist at Chitungwiza Hospital who has albinism said he heard that political parties were more than welcome to people with disabilities but the reality was far from it.

“It was being said that as people with disabilities, we can participate as potential candidates on the ballot for different political parties but there was nothing as such.

“The political environment was not accommodative of women and let alone people with disabilities,” said Mutami.

 Ambassador for Disability at African Union Disability Council, Nyasha Nhau, who contested in the 2018 elections as an independent candidate for St Mary’s constituency ward 1 in Chitungwiza said his experience in politics was often spoiled by political violence.

“I was attacked on several occasions by members of other political parties because of the impact that I had in my community where I wanted to become a councillor,” said Nhau.

Kuchera emphasised that political parties should have done more to ensure that they are people with disability being nominated into different strata, such as the government, proportional representation of women’s quota, and the council. He however appreciated the registration process, which he believes was straight forward, revealing he took advantage of it to ensure he is registered.

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