"Hear us too!" How to improve the lives and rights of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe ?

, Zimbabwe
03 - Good Health & Well Being
10 - Reduced Inequalities

“If they see a woman with a disability like me near the place where a community meeting is being held, someone will ask a question like: ‘Did we not clearly say we want to hold a serious meeting? Who brought her here to disturb us?”

Thembi* (age unknown, Makonde District)

Thembi’s story is an example of many similar testimonies of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe. They make up an estimated 9% (more than 1.2 million people) of Zimbabwe’s national population (13,572,560 - Source: ZIMSTAT Intercensal Demographic, 2017). They remain an invisible and “left behind” population group across all levels of society. Women and girls with disabilities in particular face “double marginalization” and are at a heightened risk of gender-based violence, exploitation and exclusion.

Humanitarian crises, such as natural disasters, further exacerbate the vulnerability of all persons with disabilities. S'tha tells us about her personal ordeal during and after the tropical Cyclone Idai, a disaster which hit Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe on 15 March 2019, resulting in a massive death toll and damage to property, infrastructure and cultural heritage.


Despite living in patriarchal societies, men with disabilities also face challenges. Following Cyclone Idai, Jafnos is relying on well-wishers for assistance.

“I lost my eyesight more than 10 years ago. I had just given birth to my second child and my eyes began to cloud over…. I rely on my mother to help me navigate the environment I live in. During the cyclone [Idai] she guided me away from the water and we survived. Because of my blindness, I am unable to work and my mother is too old to take on casual work. I now rely on what well-wishers give us and I am equally grateful when they have nothing to give me.”

S'tha (age unknown, Chipinge)

While important advancements have been achieved in many areas, societies are still plagued by discrimination, racism and inequalities. None of the multifaceted and complex challenges of our times can be tackled effectively without inclusion. This is the resounding message of Agenda 2030 and its pledge to “Leave no one behind”. To transform that vision into reality in a multicultural world, action must be anchored in human rights and gender equality, and promote openness, empathy and other shared values. This is the cornerstone of UNESCO’s normative and operational work which is based on respect, protection and human rights.

In this context, since stigma and discrimination begin in the minds of women and men, UNESCO is taking an active lead in advancing disability rights. Protecting and empowering the most vulnerable, while also shifting the social perception and norms of the majority, lies at the heart of UNESCO’s work on disability in Zimbabwe.

Since 2018, UNESCO has been working through two complementary joint UN initiatives:

  • The UN Partnerships on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) initiative entitled “Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities in Zimbabwe”. UNPRPD Projects are being implemented in 38 countries and are supported by the UNPRPD Multi-Partner Trust Fund. In Zimbabwe, the project is being implemented by UNESCO, UNDP and UNFPA.
  • "Protecting and Promoting the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities in Cyclone Idai Affected Areas in Zimbabwe". UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa partnership  with the World Food Programme, Christian Blind Mission (disability civil society organization) and the UNPRPD project. Its objective is to raise awareness on the needs and priority interventions for persons with disabilities in ongoing post-disaster initiatives following tropical Cyclone Idai.


“Each month, I walk at least 2 kilometres on crutches to access healthcare services as my usual route is ridden with debris left by Cyclone Idai. Crutches are uncomfortable for me and having to navigate the rocks makes it even more difficult. Though I am a father of three [children], I rely on support from well-wishers to attend to basic tasks such as laundry, fetching water and cooking. At times, I have to beg for a lift and people don’t always oblige.”

Jafnos (age 65, Chimanimani District)

In 2019 UNESCO produced four disability advocacy and awareness-raising tools for advancing disability rights and showcasing the practical application of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, ratified by Zimbabwe in 2013).   

Both initiatives have, for the first time in Zimbabwe, successfully brought together UN agencies, several ministries, organizations of persons with disabilities, human rights institutions, academia, traditional leaders and persons with disabilities to promote disability rights.

These initiatives have intensified advocacy for the implementation of the CRPD, increased resource mobilization on promoting disability rights in Zimbabwe and, most importantly, amplified the voices of persons with disabilities.

The two UNESCO initiatives apply the UN SDG Agenda 2030’s principle of “Leaving No One Behind”, and are a practical demonstration of the UN delivering as one on disability inclusion.

UNESCO and its partners will continue in 2020 to promote disability rights and use evidence-based knowledge production tools to amplify the voices of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe and the Southern African Region.

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* To preserve the anonymity of the interviewee, her name has been changed.


Phinith Chanthalangsy
UNESCO Programme Specialist