Zambia must close abusive institutions says UN expert

Ms. Catalina Devandas, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Disabilities has welcomed greater respect for the rights of people with disabilities in Zambia since 2010, but says the country must go further and abolish abusive practices against people with mental disabilities.

Joint MHUNZA/MDAC visit to psychiatric institution in Zambia. (c) MDAC, 2012.Joint MHUNZA/MDAC visit to psychiatric institution in Zambia. (c) MDAC, 2012.

In her report to the UN Human Rights Committee, Ms. Devandas expressed concern that the outdated colonial era Mental Disorders Act 1951 is still in force, labelling some people with disabilities as “lunatics” and “imbeciles”, and authorising involuntary detention in psychiatric facilities. Noting the “extremely harsh and deplorable conditions” in Zambia’s three psychiatric rehabilitation centres and criticising overcrowding and filthy conditions in Ndola psychiatric unit, the Special Rapporteur called for a moratorium on new admissions and the replacement of these facilities with community-based support services across the country.

Ms. Devandas’ comments closely reflect those of MDAC and the Mental Health Users Network of Zambia (MHUNZA) who conducted joint human rights monitoring visits to psychiatric facilities between 2012 and 2014. Monitoring missions uncovered widespread abuses in psychiatric hospitals, a complete lack of community-based mental health services, and a resultant push factor towards traditional healers, some using abusive practices including cutting and tying people under the guise of 'treatment'. Following the launch of that research, MDAC and MHUNZA brought together stakeholders from across Zambian civil society and government to develop recommendations for change, a number of which have now been adopted by the Special Rapporteur.

Felicia Mburu, MDAC Project Manager, said:

“Zambia continues to express its commitment to improving the situation for people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, and this is to be welcomed. Yet, as the Special Rapporteur makes clear, far too many people still end up in institutions that in some cases are not fit for human habitation, or are left at the mercy of unregulated healers. The Mental Disorders Act 1951 allows these abuses to continue and should be abolished as a matter of priority.”

Ms. Devandas conducted a country mission to Zambia between 18 and 28 April 2016. Zambia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010. To read MDAC’s and MHUNZA’s research into psychiatric facilities in the country, click here.

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