“I know things can change”

By Vongai Chikwanda Campaigner in Amnesty International’s Southern Africa office. 

I first visited Malawi in February 2016, when Amnesty International was conducting research on the attacks and killings of people with albinism that had been reported in the country. Our research mission also sought to investigate the widespread discrimination against this vulnerable group in Malawi.

Since I began working on this issue, I have met people with albinism who are struggling to live normal lives.

 

While we were there, we received news that a nine-year-old boy with albinism, Harry Mokosheni, had been abducted.  We soon discovered that he had been murdered. Because this happened while we were in the country it affected me deeply. I could feel the pain of Harry's mother, and knew that we had to do all that we could to prevent the same fate for Harry's twin brother, Harrison, who also had albinism, but had escaped abduction. I felt we had a role to play in making sure that Harrison could have the chance of a better future.

Since I began working on this issue, I have met people with albinism who are struggling to live normal lives. Deeply ingrained prejudice and superstition has led to many people with albinism being side-lined by society, but I am often left inspired and awestruck by individuals who display tremendous resilience and hope in the face of adversity. I have met people with albinism who have overcome incredible odds to become leaders in their communities, and, most importantly, role models for other people with albinism.

While we were there, we received news that a nine-year-old boy with albinism, Harry Mokosheni, had been abducted. We soon discovered that he had been murdered

 

An example that has stuck in my mind is the story of Chimwemwe. Chimwemwe told me that, when she started school, other children would call her "ghost" and treat her badly. She became reserved and fearful, and, when she later tried to find work as an accountant, she found it difficult, as people could not see past her skin condition. When she eventually did find employment, she excelled, and really personified the Martin Luther King dream that one must not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character.

I also remember Chimodzi who is a teacher with albinism who has overcome many obstacles and now dedicates herself to helping and improving the lives of children who have albinism.

In 2016, we launched our report into the issue. We took the name of the report from a conversation I had with a girl with albinism who I met at a school for the blind (a place where children with albinism, who struggle with vision problems, can get the support they need). She had survived an attempted kidnapping and told me: "Please tell the government the ritual killings must stop. We are also people with the right to life. We are not animals to be hunted for sale.”

We had the chance to take her message to the President of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, later that year. On 7 June, after the launch of the report, we were invited to meet President Mutharika. This was a critical and exciting moment for the campaign. Nearly a quarter of a million Amnesty supporters around the world had signed onto our calls for an end to attacks on people with Albinism in Malawi. Watching our Regional Director hand over these signatures to the president was like having 230 000 people with us in the room. When the meeting began, the first thing the President mentioned was that, over and above these signatures, he had received more than 10 000 letters from Amnesty International members telling him to act on ending the attacks. That for me was the sign that our work was having impact. The letters also played a role in our getting an audience with the president, as he wanted us to know that his government was serious about responding.

The international solidarity was overwhelming. We had support from Amnesty members all over the world who, despite the distance and differences in their contexts, were able to take the issue personally, and offered solidarity and support. During Amnesty's global Write for Rights campaign, the case of people with albinism in Malawi was given more attention - Edward Snowden, the globally renowned digital security activist, wrote a letter to Annie Alfred, a 11-year-old Malawian girl with albinism!

Since the launch of the campaign, we have continued to see mobilisation on the issue, both within Malawi itself, and across the region. When Amnesty actively started speaking out for the protection of the rights of people with albinism, many organisations became interested. On the ground, the Association of People with Albinism (APAM) was very happy with the attention the issue was receiving because it gave them an audience with the President and key ministries in the Government of Malawi.

Prior to Amnesty International’s intervention, the issues of albinism in Malawi had received little global attention. But since the campaign started, the Pan Africa Parliament passed a resolution about persons with albinism in Africa. 

An example that has stuck in my mind is the story of Chimwemwe. Chimwemwe told me that, when she started school, other children would call her "ghost" and treat her badly.

 

In June 2016, just after the report launch, Malawi amended the Penal Code and the Anatomy Act. The amended laws criminalize abductions, killings, conspiracy, insinuating, exhumation and being found with body parts, and provide for deterrent sentences for these crimes. Malawi also developed a handbook for prosecutors, magistrates and judges to guide prosecution of cases of attacks on people with albinism. The handbook contains all offences in the laws of Malawi that are useful in responding to cases of attacks against persons with albinism.

We have also contributed to notable steps in addressing criminal justice failures, and have since seen speedy prosecution of some cases that had been outstanding.

But more needs to be done

We need SADC as a region to come together in combatting crimes against people with albinism. We must see states collaborating in ending attacks and greater understanding of the motives behind these crimes.  We need the Government of Malawi to work together with other governments, in particular Mozambique, to combat the cross-border nature of the crimes.

The new Malawi government must show leadership at the SADC level by calling on other Heads of State to table a declaration on ending attacks. The new government must also focus on challenging harmful cultural beliefs and practices that continue to perpetuate ritual killings in Malawi. They must also include people with albinism in social protection programmes.

There must be more effective protection measures, such as visible policing, to enable children with albinism to go to school with confidence that their lives are secure. The government should prioritise conclusion of outstanding murder cases, as the failure to prosecute or conclude a case sends the wrong message to would-be offenders and encourages impunity.

People with albinism must feel safe - at home, in their communities, and in their own countries across Southern Africa as a whole. If governments start to show leadership on this issue, and put recommendations into action, I know the situation will change.

 

Vongai led the campaign focusing on protection of the rights of people with albinism in Malawi since 2016.