Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The trials of physically-challenged politicians

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MASVINGO — Born physically-challenged, Vengai Kurunzirwa (35) is wheelchair-bound and relies on an aide who he pays monthly for mobility.
BY TATENDA CHITAGU
That, however, has not stopped him from seeking political office.
Kurunzirwa, from Masvingo’s populous Mucheke suburb, is among the few People Living with Disabilities (PWDs) in the province who threw in the hat into yesterday’s historic polls. He contested as an independent councillor for Ward 5 here.
Unlike other able-bodied political contestants, Kurunzirwa, an accountant by profession, said from the start that he had a disadvantage not of his own making.
“I need assistance every time for mobility. I cannot live alone. I have to depend on my aide’s time to do things, not mine. I cannot rely on myself. Our life is very expensive.” Kurunzirwa said.
Kurunzirwa, the Masvingo provincial youth chair of the National Council for the Disabled persons in Zimbabwe (NCDPZ), said the electorate also shunned physically-challenged candidates seeking political office.
“The electorate does not have confidence in us. People were just socialised into such a way of thinking. My rivals’ supporters indirectly insult me. They tell my supporters that they can’t be led by a physically-challenged person and suggest that my able bodied supporters should have instead contested, not me.”
Apart from his condition, which he said gave other candidates an unfair competitive edge over him, the father of two said he lacked resources because he could not do much to raise money for his campaign.
“As an independent, I did not have resources to campaign as much as I would have wanted to. The electorate expected to be pampered with freebies but I did not have much money. My posters were also torn down.”
“Instead of having rallies, the government, in the long term, should create platforms where we can debate with other contestants and be covered in the media so that we reach out to many people because my movements are curtailed by my condition.”

But his decision to stand as an independent was a statement on its own.
“I was motivated not only by the need to stand up for the physically-challenged people’s rights and represent their issues, but even the able-bodied. We can still do it. Disability does not mean inability. I decided to compete with the able-bodied as a way of encouraging those with the same condition as mine to show that we can also do it.
Politicians disappear after being voted into power and only re-appear when they need our votes. I want to make a change.”
He said he decided to stand as an independent because most parties do not accommodate the physically challenged since they are viewed as ‘weaker candidates,’ which equals to ‘donating’ the seats to other parties.
This is despite the fact that two million people out of Zimbabwe’s population of 14 million were living with different kinds of disabilities.
Kurunzirwa contested with four others, all of them able-bodied. These were the incumbent MDC Alliance councillor Daniel Mberikunashe, Chimwani Wanzai (Zanu PF), Admire Mufamba of the People’s Rainbow Coalition (PRC) and another independent candidate, Enock Mapondo.
He was not the only physically-challenged candidate from Masvingo.
Henry Chivhanga, president of the Disability Amalgamated Community Trust (DACT), contested for Chivi Central’s parliamentary seat.
While Chivhanga was not wheelchair-bound he, however, had difficulties with walking because one of his legs is shorter than the other.
But just like Kurunzirwa, Chivhanga said he also faced similar challenges, if not worse because he was vying for a rural constituency where myths and misconceptions about disabilities abound.
“When you go to address a rally, people give you that look which says, ‘is he serious?’ I can feel it, even though I ignore it. Already they would have judged me by my condition and I will be considered a minnow,” Chivhanga said. Chivhanga however said there was a brighter side to his condition.
“Some however feel pity for me and I think that may work in my favour.”
He contested against Clopas Mbangure (ZIPP), Ephraim Gwanongodza (Zanu PF), Sharara Brighton (PRC), Chijaka Joseph (MDC T) and Esau Mbenganai (NCA).
For female politicians living with disabilities, the situation is worse, according to Muchirairwa Mugidho, an MDC Alliance proportional representation candidate for Chiredzi.
“It is difficult to be a physically challenged politician, but it’s worse when you are female like me. There are other needs which are peculiar to us as women. The media is fixated on male candidates. Female politicians are also viewed as people who sleep their way to the top, which is not true. The media also focuses on able-bodied people and gives us a blackout. This leaves us with a low chance of winning because nobody markets us,” Mugidho said.
According to Samantha Sibanda, founder of the Signs of Hope Trust, an organisation that represents the physically-challenged, such impediments made the constituency under-represented in councils and Parliament.
“People with disabilities are still underrepresented in both Houses of Parliament, with only two senators representing people with disabilities. This makes legislation that will help improve lives of people with disabilities be unnecessarily delayed to be ratified and domesticated,” Sibanda said.
“We have seen a lot of advocacy around PWDs participating in the electoral process as voters and observers, but not candidates. Finances continue to be a problem and also awareness raised targeting the electorate to support candidates with disabilities is limited.”