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Repealing Mental Act giant step towards human rights

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Benedict Tembo

Zambia Daily Mail Limited

FROM a regional perspective, Zambia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Disabilities – as are most countries in southern Africa.

However, Zambia is unique in that it has domesticated the Convention in one of the most progressive Acts in the region on disability – the Persons with Disabilities Act.

The Act, like the Convention, recognises the rights of people with disabilities and gives detail to some of the existing rights in Zambia’s Constitution in the specific context of people with disabilities. Importantly, the Persons with Disabilities Act and Convention recognise the right to legal capacity, to human dignity, to community living, and to freedom from discrimination on the basis of a person’s disability.

Government has greatly improved the protection framework for persons with disabilities, including the strengthening of the Zambia Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the production of a National Disability Survey, including the significant efforts undertaken to make social protection framework inclusive of persons with disabilities.

It is therefore gratifying that the Ministry of Health will be presenting the Mental Health Bill, which will replace the archaic Mental Disorders Act of 1949, which infringed on citizens with mental disabilities.
The Mental Disorders Act was enacted in 1949 – a colonial piece of legislation that is not in line with the newer Persons with Disabilities Act, the Convention, or the Constitution.

The Bill, if presented within the coming months, will supercede a petition in the Lusaka High Court by the Mental Health Users of Zambia.

The Bill follows a lot of work in the background between the civil society, Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the Mental Disorders Act of 1951 is repealed.

The Zambia Disability Rights Watch said there has been positive intentions and policy proclamations from Government in terms of repealing the old Act.

The gesture by Government is positive because it appreciates the principle of the human rights approach to delivering mental health services.

By undertaking to repeal the archaic Act, Government has yet again demonstrated its desire to recognise mental health as a human rights and sustainable development issue.
Undertaking to reform the Mental Disorders Act is a step in the right direction towards modernising mental health services in the country.

Despite the referendum bill having failed to the Referendum on a new Bill of Rights and Article 79 having failed, reforming the Mental Disorders Act will raise human rights status in Zambia.

A constitutional referendum was held on August 11, 2016 alongside general elections, a move designed to reduce the cost of the referendum.

It will promote and protect the rights of persons with mental disabilities in the country.

Government will, through the repealing of the Mental Disorders Act, roll out mental health services throughout the country unlike the current scenario where Chainama Hills Hospital has been the sole provider of mental health services.

The repealing of the Mental Disorders Act will be a reprieve to persons with psychosocial and mental disabilities to live under the Mental Disorders Act.

Currently, the archaic Act allows for arbitrary detention, coerced treatment without informed consent, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and isolation.

“Repealing the mental Disorders Act is urgently needed to protect the rights of people with psychosocial and mental disabilities. The Zambian government’s intentions to do so through new Mental health legislation is critically important,” says Annabel Raw, a human rights lawyer with the Southern African Litigation Centre.

Ms Raw says it is crucial that new legislation aligns with the rights and visions of the Persons with Disabilities Act and the Convention described above.

Recently, United Nations Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas observed that there are good opportunities to achieve the realisation of rights of persons with disabilities in Zambia.

During her mission of tour to the country to assess the level of enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities, Ms. Devandas said Zambia has the potential to become a disability champion in the African region, provided that the Government makes it a priority to implement the policy and legal framework on disability today.

And repealing upcoming new mental health legislation is a giant step towards becoming a disability champion in the African region.

The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.

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