Albinism is defined as a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited condition present at birth which results in a lack of pigmentation (melanin) in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to the sun and bright light. As such, most persons with albinism (PWAs) are visually impaired and face a greater risk of developing skin cancer. There is no cure for the absence of melanin.
Of late, PWAs have been targeted for violent attacks some of which have resulted in gruesome deaths. The drive of such heinous and barbaric acts are ridiculous superstitious beliefs that body parts and tissues of such persons form a major component in coming up with charms that lead to economic successes. Some, like young girls and women, have been sexually abused in the belief that sleeping with them would cure diseases such as HIV and Aids.
Thus, an aura of fear has crept in PWAs in Malawi. Children with albinism have been particularly targeted for such violence. A report by the United Nations said as follows and I quote: “The use of children is linked to the pursuit of innocence which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual. Moreover, children are more vulnerable to attacks as they are easy to find and capture and do not have the physical strength to fend off attackers.” This, perhaps, explains the evil that most children with albinism are facing in the country from violent amputations to abductions.
PWAs have rights which are being violated by these cruel attacks. One of the rights in danger is the right to life. The right is enshrined in various international instruments as follows: Article 3 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights talks about the right to life, liberty and security of person; Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights goes further to say that the right shall be protected by law and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights says that human beings are inviolable in its Article 4. Section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, 1994, enshrines the right to life for everyone and that no one should have his right to life arbitrarily deprived. Thus, the right to life of PWAs is being violated by the spate of killings.
Every human right calls for a correlative duty bearer. The State has a duty to protect PWAs from arbitrary deprivation of their right to life, liberty and security of the person.
Looking at the precarious position PWAs find themselves in, to insist on applying formal equality in discharging this obligation is both fallacious and ineffective as it only preserves the status quo. Protecting PWAs using formal equality would result in leaving out such persons in their vulnerable position. For instance, in a community where there are PWAs and others without, applying the same measure of equality in protecting such persons amid the targeted killing is a perpetuation of falsehood.
It is pertinent that a different kind of measure of equality be employed. There is need to apply substantive equality to protect the rights of PWAs. This is so because the targeted attacks are motivated by loopholes and hierarchies that are embedded inside formal equality. The society’s view towards PWAs, like any other form of disability, fuels attacks and segregation.
Substantive equality tries to overturn hierarchies embedded in formal equality as an analysis of the society’s make up is important in ensuring proper protection. At a family level, applying substantive equality would require, for instance, that children with albinism are properly guarded by members of the family at all times. At the community level, various initiatives like community policing can be placed to ensure that cases of attacks are reduced. At national level, Parliament needs to put in place a specific law as requiring the current penal laws to apply on these persons is inadequate. At the regional international level, States need to enter into agreements to make sure that the transnational trade in body parts is checked. To crown it all, there is need for a paradigm shift in conceptualising equal protection if at all as a country we want to protect persons with albinism from brutal killings.