By Janet Liabunya and Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
Today, on Saturday 23 June, Malawi is commemorating International Albinism Awareness Day. Unfortunately, people with albinism in Malawi are living in fear, following a series of violent attacks. The situation is worse for children because they are the most vulnerable and therefore the most targeted.
One of these children is a little boy called Gracious. Like other children living with albinism, he is regularly anxious. He is aware of the attacks that have been happening and hopes that things can change. “I’ve heard stories of children with albinism being killed,” he says. “I always live in fear. I feel sad about our situation.”
Since 2015, cases of attacks on people with albinism have been on the rise. The Malawi Police Service recorded 60 cases in 2015, 30 in 2016 and 52 in 2017. The fear brought by the attacks has led to people with albinism not wanting to leave their homes. In some cases, children with albinism have stopped attending school.
Even attending school brings challenges for children with albinism. Gracious walks to school with his friends every day. Yet when he arrives, he cannot see the blackboard clearly, making it difficult for him to learn effectively. “Because of having albinism, I struggle to read the blackboard,” he continues. “But even though I face difficulties, I will not stop going to school because I want to become a pilot.”
Outside class, the problems persist. The skin of children with albinism is very sensitive to the sun and requires protection. But being a child from a poor background, acquiring sunscreen is another obstacle. Issues like these make it difficult for children like Gracious to live normal lives. “Most of the time I cannot buy sunscreen because of the transport costs”, he says.
In Malawi, most of the victims of attacks against people with albinism are children or young people below the age of 25. The majority of attackers, meanwhile, are poor and aged between 22 and 49 years old. There is a persistent myth that the body parts of people with albinism can be used in witchcraft, and hence a black market for body parts. Attackers are usually motivated by financial gain.
In response to the attacks, the Government of Malawi and its partners have intervened in several areas, such as research to better understand the root causes and drivers of the attacks, and community awareness on the rights of people with albinism, to inform activities that will address myths that lead to the attacks.
Investigations and prosecutions of attackers have also increased, and Malawi has agreed to take concrete action to ensure that the Anti-Human Trafficking Act is effectively implemented and that people with albinism are provided with equal protection by the law.
UNICEF, with support from UK Aid, has conducted a study that analyzes cases of attacks on people with albinism that have been investigated and prosecuted. The aim of the study was to understand the nature and trends of these cases and to identify challenges, opportunities and successful approaches in investigating and prosecuting offenses.
The report establishes that although there has been a significant reduction, the attacks have not stopped. The recent murder case of MacDonald Masambuka has been widely reported in the media and shows that the problem of attacks on people with albinism is still very serious.
According to the report, common offences include murder, exhumations of human tissue of deceased people with albinism, and verbal abuse of people with albinism. In most of these cases, a person who is close to the victim, either a relative or a well-known acquaintance or friend of the victim is involved in the attack.
The report confirms that most of the attacks have been in Machinga and Mangochi districts. It proposes further research to establish why offences are most pronounced in these areas. The report also recommends proactive measures to prevent further attacks, such as training police officers, strengthening community based protection structures, and reinforcing the homes of people with albinism.
Malawi also needs to negotiate and conclude extradition treaties with Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, since many suspects flee to neighbouring countries, the report finds.
There is no excuse for violence against children of any kind. Children everywhere in the world are born with albinism and should be treated equally, like any other human being. For Gracious, all he wants is to feel safe and valued in society, despite his condition.
“My name is Gracious, and I am like any other any other person”, he says. “I want to be respected, protected and treated just like everybody else.”