Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Tiunike Online has reported, commented and shared in the lament on the predicament of persons with albinism (PWAs) in the last 3 years on its platforms (Web Page, Twitter and Facebook). These engagements have provided analyses about the need to address the violations holistically looking at prevention, protection and prosecution of those committing these egregious harms against a population that is already in a minority.
Association of Persons with albinism (APAM) reports that there are between 8,000 and 10000 persons with albinism in Malawi. This figure may drop or be validated with the new census that has just been released in 2019, as the official figures by National Statistics Office will give us better accuracy.
I feel compelled to critically re-examine where we are in 2019 after a surge of violations resumed on this year’s New Year’s Day in Nkhata Bay District. Yasin Phiri (60) is the latest victim that was savagely murdered on new years eve and his body dumped after both his hands were chopped off by criminals. What is more horrifying with this latest attack is the fact that his 7-year-old son witnessed the killing of his father and was powerless to do anything. The attackers also brutally attacked the young boy leaving him seriously injured. While Yasin was being attacked, other criminal syndicates in two districts were also exhuming graves of persons with albinism in Machinga and Mangochi. The coordinated attacks on persons with albinism only point towards the fact that Malawi is now a society that has been taken over by myths and superstitions. On this note, it can also be concluded that we have not really made any progress on protecting persons with albinism.
Several institutions, particularly, the UN in Malawi, OSISA, Amnesty International and other development partners like DfID have invested in various interventions to assist the government of Malawi in implementing the 2013 National Response Plan (NRP), which now has culminated into a National Action Plan (NAP). The NAP is a more robust and comprehensive strategy for addressing the gaps that were evident in the NRP. As I report on this latest attack, I contacted APAM Chairperson Mr. Overstone Kondowe, to understand whether the NAP has become operational since its launch last year. As it is in Malawi, all good plans die before they are implemented. Since its launch in June 2018, Parliament has not yet funded it and there has not been any deliberate effort to set aside a budget for the Disability Department to date. It is not surprising therefore that all measures put in place, to curb the violations and have an effective national response fall short because of lack of political will at all levels.
As new violations emerge, we continue to grapple with the old unresolved cases and those that have slipped unreported through regular media. Our courts have over 145 cases now – and still counting. That very familiar case of McDonald Masambuka is only one of these files. The mystery behind the missing of Eunice Nkhonjera in Karonga District, a toddler who has not yet made her second birthday, has joined the pile with little assurance of the potential to seize her captors. So far, over 23 people with albinism have been killed in Malawi since 2014 (Nation Newspaper 2019) and some are still missing. The probability that their families will ever get to see their loved ones alive is grim, as the notable case of Joseph Kachingwe, a 12-year-old who’s been missing in Phalombe since 6th July 2018 seems to show.
As such, it appears that no deliberate and concrete actions are being taken to contain the killings and abductions. The laxity renders many previous efforts worthless. The optimism, in 2019, that the existing strategies will ever be deployed to curb the ostensibly endless attacks is rather dim. It now looks like everyone, including those that have invested in the fight, have failed the community of persons with albinism.
For PWAs, there are always other security threats to their lives, issues of persistent discrimination and exclusion. One that is a thorn in the flesh is the lack of health services to adequately address the other biggest killer of persons with albinism in Malawi, which is cancer. Cancer is killing many and remains another area requiring urgent attention. The APAM spokesperson shared that over 20 people registered with the Association have died in the last 2 years. So, cancer compounds the predicaments of albinism in Malawi alongside safety and security on the street.
When we analyse these critical matters affecting persons with albinism there are no positive indicators for progress. Instead, it seems all efforts are meeting a blank wall, but this also points to leadership failures. Leadership is lacking at all levels. The need for holistic interventions is paramount. And the principle human rights defender must ensure that there are measures to mobilise all stakeholders to take up responsibility and sustain the activities. Lessons from Tanzania and Kenya are worth reckoning. International human rights obligations stipulate that the State has an obligation to exercise due diligence on issues of human rights of vulnerable citizens. So, at the minimum, measures must ensure that there is no infringement upon the right to life, especially where the State knew or ought to have known that such risk exists.
Moving forward, to eliminate the deep-rooted problems of persons with albinism will not just end by making empty threats against the criminals. This will require properly executed measures. Public funds must be set aside for the next 5 years to address all areas pertaining to the wellbeing of persons with albinism. What a better way to begin than by funding the NAP which persons with albinism themselves and others developed for the intended purpose of guiding stakeholders on national efforts to promote and protect persons with albinism. A critical component that has not been sustained and utilised, for example, is that of civic education, which I strongly believe is instrumental to demystifying the myths and beliefs. An analysis of the violations for the past 4 years, is that the attacks are mostly in rural areas, where superstitious beliefs are rife and accompanied by poverty. The belief in the potential to profit from selling bones of persons with albinism gains ground under such conditions.
I still maintain, as I did on the same platform in 2016, that incidence of albinism in Malawi will surely continue, like in every other society in the world. However, the onus is on us and the choice to eliminate this vice must be driven the by a key stakeholder, Government, joined by civil society to advocate and ensure that messages hit the very core of society and governance. Otherwise, we will never be able to resolve the superstitious beliefs that lead to the hacking of innocent citizens. We need, as a country, to invest in understanding the demand and supply demand chains. This is one area that needs thorough research and possibly a systematic regional approach to understand it better.
This article benefits from conversations with a human rights advocate in Malawi on the growing concern over the albinism-human rights nexus in the country.