Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
DISCRIMINATION against people with albinism is an age-old problem.
Children are said to be the worst culprits because, naturally, they tend to be hostile to people who look different from them.
A schoolchild with albinism will not have it easy in interacting with classmates without being scorned because of weird beliefs that people have about albinism.
It takes a brave child to prevail over unfriendly comments and rejection by peers and stay in school until one successfully completes one’s education.
A Copperbelt-based medical doctor who has albinism was once quoted as saying that he suffered the worst form of maltreatment and bullying when he was a little boy.
As an adult and well-accomplished medical doctor, he is now respected by his clients and peers. No one can dare call him names because he is that doctor that a sick person desperately needs.
But as a child, the doctor said, he did not have it easy because children, perhaps by their childish nature, are apt to reject people who are different from them.
You may be wondering what I am driving at.
Well, this is my point – the Albinism Foundation of Zambia wants to build a school for children with albinism in the capital, Lusaka.
The reason is that the children are being discriminated against and stigmatised in society, especially in schools.
Accor d ing to Albi n ism Foundation of Zambia chairperson Duncan Lalusha, parents are scared of sending albino children to school because, first of all, their security is not guaranteed, and, secondly, the stigma and discrimination creates a hostile environment for the young people.
I would like to believe that the sense of insecurity by parents comes from baseless beliefs that people have about the body parts of people with albinism.
It’s for this reason that in sub- Saharan Africa, senseless murders of albinos for their body parts are common in countries like Tanzania and Malawi. In Tanzania, which has one of the highest albino populations in the world, with one in 1,500 people likely to have albinism, some albinos have retreated to Ikerewe Island on Lake Victoria for their own safety. Some children have actually been abandoned on that island by their parents and guardians.
I don’t know how people would believe that people with albinism have mysterious powers when they are normal people, except for the lack of or low production o f m e l a n i n , a pigment that gives colour to our skin, eyes, hair, eyelashes and eyebrows.
By the way, international statistics indicate that albinism affects one in 17,000 people globally. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, one in 5,000 people have albinism, whereas in America and Europe the ratio is 1 in 20,000 people.
Although not as bad as the way things are in Tanzania, there are also weird people in Zambia who harbour strange beliefs about people with albinism.
Some of you may recall an incident in Chama district on November 4, 2017, in which a 19-year-old woman with albinism lost a right hand in a near-fatal attack by well-known people in her school and community.
Mirriam Kumwenda, of Chikwa village, was five months pregnant when she was dragged out of the house by her attackers in the middle of the night. They cut off her right hand and left her for dead. But by God’s grace, she survived that ghastly attack after spending a month in Chama District Hospital.
Her dismembered hand was recovered in Malawi where a man was caught trying to sell it to a businessman.
At the time of her attack, Mirriam was doing Grade 7 at Mangwere Primary School.
Obviously the Albinism Foundation of Zambia had this case in mind when they talked about the safety of people with albinism not being guaranteed.
The foundation carried out a survey which found that some parents were apprehensive about sending albino children to school because of their vulnerability to hate crimes.
Apart from that, according to Mr Lalusha, the stigma tag is bad in schools, and teachers are allegedly among people who are indifferent to albino pupils.
What this means is that some children who can’t stomach the tongue-lashing and offensive treatment by their peers will stop attending school on their own.
These are among the reasons why the Albinism Foundation of Zambia wants to raise K500,000 to build a school in Lusaka for 150 albino children.
Actually, they have already embarked on the fundraising process and only recently, they held a function where they lamented the lack of access to education by the affected children.
Well intended as this cause may seem, I am against it because it will worsen the stigma and discrimination against people with albinism.
Think of it this way – you want to build a primary school that only children with albinism will attend. Which secondary school are they going to attend after leaving that school? And at tertiary level, which college or university will the children attend if you want to isolate them from other members of society?
My point is that building a school for children with albinism is in itself a discriminatory approach and will only serve to worsen the s t i g m a a n d discrimination that we need to de-escalate.
And by quarantining the children, you are telling them that they can’t interact with other people who are different from them. So, in a way, the children will suffer self-stigma because you are putting them in a solitary place where they can only interact with people of a similar skin tone.
Quite alright, children with albinism need access to education like any other children in this country. But by building a school for these children, the Albinism Foundation of Zambia is going about it the wrong way. This amounts to creating a solitary society for the children.
If we are to provide universal access to education to all Zambians, regardless of colour or social status, all children must have equal access to education services and must be treated with impartiality.
I appreciate the challenges that children with albinism face in our schools, especially among their peers. But we need to teach our children to embrace their colleagues with albinism and show them love and respect.
It will take the school authorities and parents to debunk the myths that people have about people with albinism.
Children should know that having a different skin tone does not make people with albinism super humans whose body parts could make someone rich.
In our home set-ups, we need to teach our children to accept and value people who are different from them by virtue of them being humans.
Schools should go an extra mile by taking disciplinary measures against children that make the school environment hostile to their colleagues through bullying.
Bullying in whatever form should not be tolerated in schools because it has a negative effect on class performance of victims. Victims of bullying could actually go as far as stopping school.
Nevertheless, parents of children with albinism should accept their children and proudly take them to school.
Keeping albino children home to avoid prying eyes or offensive comments creates a barrier to education for those kids.
You are actually ruining that child’s future because you are stopping them from exploring their potential in life and becoming productive members of society in future.
If you instil a sense of confidence in a child at household level, they will go out there and conquer the world, no matter what obstacles they may face.
What I am saying is that parents have no justification whatsoever for stopping children with albinism from attending school.
Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA