The Defence ministry and army have come under fire for the “fair discrimination” policy that bars physically challenged aspirants from being employed by the military.
Experts and advocacy groups say the policy is in conflict with the Zimbabwean constitution and statutes as well as the National Disability Policy that President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched recently.
Defence and War Veterans Affairs’ minister, Oppah Muchinguri, outlined the policy on Wednesday, 21 July 2021, in a written response to questions by Bulawayo proportional representation legislator, Emma Ncube.
The member of parliament had asked Muchinguri to clarify government policy regarding army recruitment of People Living with Disabilities (PWDs) persons who held professional qualifications.
Muchinguri insisted that the army could not recruit PWDs since it was mandatory for every prospective recruit to pass a 10 kilometre road run within 45 minutes.
“By not recruiting disabled persons, this should be considered as fair discrimination since the ZDF (Zimbabwe Defence Force) would be protecting them from being subjected to situations that are not palatable to their physical conditions,” she said.
But people living with disabilities are crying foul, describing the “fair discrimination” policy as unjust.
Masimba Kuchera, the Centre for Disability and Development in Zimbabwe (CDDZ) director, said: “The social model of disability frowns at such a policy (to bar disabled aspirants from army recruitment) and the term ‘fair discrimination’ itself is an oxymoron because there’s nothing fair about discrimination.”
He added: “There are many other roles people with disabilities can execute perfectly (in the army). A forward-thinking government should be encouraging PWDs to occupy these roles. A people’s army cannot continue to live in the past and should embrace diversity even in recruitment.”
In early June, President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the national disability policy and called for inclusive employment in all sectors of the economy.
Kuchera said the army recruitment policy of “fair discrimination” was, therefore, in conflict with national disability blue print that President Mnangagwa endorsed.
“It’s sad that, notwithstanding the launch of the policy, people with disabilities still have no-go areas in terms of employment in modern-day Zimbabwe. This promotes the stigmatisation and discrimination of PWDs,” he said.
President Mnangagwa launched the national policy on 9 June at the Harare International Conference Centre.
The event was attended by vice president Constantino Chiwenga, senior government officials, and representatives of labour, disability groups and the United Nations.
President Mnangagwa said the policy was meant to promote disability rights as “enshrined in the Constitution and international conventions the country is signatory to” and announced that the Zimbabwean government approved measures to ensure equal opportunity at the workplace, in line with the Disabled and Labour laws.
Muchinguri, in her written response to the lawmaker, did not indicate if the army was revising the “fair discrimination” policy.
Section 22(1) of the constitution obligates the state and all institutions of government “at every level” to “recognise the rights of persons with physical and mental disabilities, in particular their right to be treated with respect and dignity”.
Under Section 22(2), the constitution stipulates that disabled persons must allowed to “achieve their potential and to minimise the disadvantages suffered by them”, while Section 22 (3) (a) requires that they must be allowed to participate in “work programmes consistent with their capabilities”.
While rejecting potential recruits at the entry point, the ZDF, though, has been retaining soldiers who would have been injured in the course of their work, depending on the extent of the injury.
Muchinguri confirmed this position, saying injured military employees, where necessary, were rehabilitated.
She said the army had 48 members with disabilities who were working as stores supervisors, clerks, cooks, office clerks, electricians, cobblers, dressmakers and information technology specialists.
Abraham Mateta, a lawyer and disability consultant, said this retention of injured soldiers showed that disabled people could still work effectively in the army and betrayed the unfairness of the military policy on the recruitment of PWDs. .
“Just to be fair on this issue, we need to take into account that the army normally retains some of its workers that get injured while on duty. Instead of forcing them to retire on medical grounds, I have been seeing that quite a number of them are retained and re-assigned. So the army can recruit people with disabilities,” he said.
Mateta said the term “fair discrimination” was regrettable.
“The use of the term fair discrimination might have been unfortunate. It causes us to rethink what an army should be doing. Perhaps we are still deep-rooted in the thinking of an army being only important as an institution of war and force. We must be moving towards changing that narrative,” he said.
Tsepang Nare, Beyond Measure Inclusive Community Trust board chair, said it was discriminatory for the army to look at physical fitness alone when recruiting.
“The army is a very big institution and not everyone must be physically fit. Not everyone must carry a gun. People with disabilities may be sent to relevant departments and positions may be reserved for them, looking at what they are able to do in terms of their qualifications,” she said.
Dennis Mudzingwa, the MDC Alliance national secretary for people with disabilities urged fairness in army recruitments.
“I am really surprised and shocked to realise that the government is refusing to accept persons with disabilities into the army. If we read the national constitution, it is clear that persons with disabilities must not be discriminated against. The national disability policy says that in any organisation, when recruiting, 15 percent of those admitted must be people with disabilities,” he said.