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The following blog post was written by Doris Rajan, Director of Social Development for IRIS Institute, on her most recent return from Zambia where she and others from IRIS are involved in social policy work. The above video documents some of the highlight from the most recent trip.

I was sitting in Nairobi airport last month after attending a week of meetings with Michael Bach (IRIS) in Lusaka, Zambia – my head spinning with the voices that I have heard all week. How similar we all are…

With ratification by the Government of Zambia of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), momentum is growing for real change in laws, government policies and programs, and in community services/supports in order to better recognize and advance the rights for people with disabilities.

IRIS has been providing technical support (i.e. facilitation, synthesizing of collaborative discussions and bringing learnings from other countries) to the two organizations at the forefront of this work –  the Zambian Federation of the Disabled (ZAFOD) and the Mental Health Users Network of Zambia (MHUNZA) as they design and implement their plans for advancing Article 12 of the CRPD in Zambia. Supported by the Open Society Foundation, initially the focus was to work with the government to ensure that a new Mental Health Bill and the Persons with Disabilities Bill recognize and support the right to legal capacity. It became clear quite quickly however that while it is imperative that these rights be entrenched in laws and policies, there needs to be a simultaneous process that work directly with people in the communities in which they live. That is, what does the right to “legal capacity” really look like in a person’s day to day life and then how do communities come together to take action to make this a reality.

A discussion forum in May 2012 brought together family and self-advocacy groups and individuals, representatives from the education, mental health and social services sectors and key government stakeholders to explore the issues and challenges people with intellectual and mental health disabilities experience in making decisions in their own lives, and getting the supports they need to live an inclusive life in the community. At a Forum held in Lusaka in May 2012, we heard from individuals that this mean being able to make their own choices, being free from unwanted control from their families and the interference of others, not being involuntarily treated or detained, to be free of abuse, treated as adults and not children, choosing where they want to live and not having their right to own property taken away.

This followed in February 2013 with a 3-day ‘Design Workshop’ once again organized and hosted by ZAFOD and MHUNZA in Lusaka, where key stakeholders came together again to develop a community development demonstration initiative that would be rooted in three pilot communities in Zambia.  The idea here is to work with  people with mental health and intellectual disabilities, their families and key local stakeholders (i.e. health and social services, traditional healers, faith based groups, local governments, the police, etc) to identify community specific needs and develop effective community based mental health and other supports, that will eventually result in people being better included in the communities in which they live.

Michael Bach continues to work closely with ZAFOD and MHUNZA as they draft, vet, revise and push for the swift adoption of a new Mental Health bill that respects the right to legal capacity.

And here we were again in Zambia –  October 2013 with a key group of law school instructors and law students involved in disability law from across the Southern Africa Region (including Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia) family groups, disability organizations and representatives from the Ministries of Justice, Community Development, Mother and Child Health, Education and most importantly – the Ministry of Health who holds responsibility for Mental Health issues –  for a day and a half Forum to initially share stakeholder perspectives for Mental Health Reform in Zambia, and hear an overview of ZAFOD and MHUNZA’s recommendations for a new Mental Health Bill. The majority of the time was spent in discussions on the pros and cons of the present Mental Health system in Zambia and identifying and confirming recommendations going forward. IRIS also assisted ZAFOD and MHUNZA in finalizing the proposal for the Community Development Pilot Initiatives that likely will take place in early 2014.

Lusaka to Toronto – just under 13,000 kilometres away. We have vastly different socio-economic, political and cultural backgrounds and histories – yet people with intellectual and mental health disabilities around the world aim for the same things  -being understood, not discriminated against and valued. This effort to change legislation and communities has required strong determination, cross country collaboration and a push to change the will of the decision-makers. But as Sylvester Katontoka of MHUNZA –  one of the two men who has led this effort in Zambia – explains their goal quite simply.

 “It has taken 50 years to change an official document – why? When it speaks to the happiness of this population..”

Thank you ZAFOD and MHUNZA for inviting us to support and witness this impressive work. IRIS will continue to share and learn from your strength, thoughtfulness and tenacity and bring the message home to Canada. Until we meet again!