Saturday, June 18, 2016

Plights of Nigerian Albinos

"The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda pledges to leave no one behind. That includes people with albinism. The cycle of attacks, discrimination and poverty must be broken" - Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

On Monday, June 13, 2016 the International Albinism Awareness Day was celebrated globally. Nigeria was not an exception. There were media advocacy and symposium organised by The Albino Foundation, a non-governmental organisation established since 2006 to fight the cause and protect the rights of persons living with albinism.

According to the United Nations “People with albinism face multiple forms of discrimination worldwide. Albinism is still profoundly misunderstood, socially and medically. The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition, which foster their marginalisation and social exclusion. This leads to various forms of stigma and discrimination. In some communities, erroneous beliefs and myths, heavily influenced by superstition, put the security and lives of persons with albinism at constant risk. These beliefs and myths are centuries old and are present in cultural attitudes and practices around the world.  On 18 December 2014, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming, with effect from 2015, 13 June as International Albinism Awareness Day.”

UN is on point with the above observations. Albinos which Yorubas called ‘Afin’ while Hausa people call them ‘Bature’ meaning ‘White man’ are endangered species in Africa, nay Nigeria. They face a lot of maltreatments, molestations, discriminations, stigmatisations, ostracism and persecutions due to the myths and superstitions about them.  In Nigeria and several African countries like Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and even South Africa, albinos are highly discriminated against to the point of being murdered. It is reported that in Tanzania, some witchdoctors are making the ignorant populace believe that they could prepare them good luck charms with body parts of albinos. Thus, there is massive hunt for their genitals, hair, skin, limbs and so on.

In Zimbabwe, there is also an erroneous belief that sleeping with an albino cures HIV/AIDS carrier of the disease. Thus, many of the albinos in Zimbabwe are being raped for that purpose which is a total fallacy.  In Nigeria, the belief is that they are accursed people and bring bad luck. Hence they are often ostracised. In some communities here, it is a common belief that a child born with albinism is conceived when a woman had intercourse while she is menstruating or in the afternoon. Others are of the opinion that an albino is a punishment or a curse from the gods due to wrong done in the family. These are all fallacious beliefs which have been disproved by science.

What actually is albinism? According to Healthline, “Albinism is a rare group of genetic disorders that cause the skin, hair, or eyes to have little or no colour. Albinism is also associated with vision problems. According to the National Organisation for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, about 1 in 18,000 to 20,000 people in the United States has a form of albinism.” There are two broad types of albinism. They is Oculocutaneous Albinism.  This has four subtypes and affects the skin, hair, and eyes. The second type is Ocular Albinism. This occurs as a result of a gene mutation on the X chromosome and occurs almost exclusively in males. This type of albinism only affects the eyes. People with OA have normal hair, skin, and eye colouring, but have no colouring in the retina (the back of the eye). Albinism, according to medical research, is caused by a defect in one of several genes that produce or distribute melanin. The defect may result in the absence of melanin production, or a reduced amount of melanin production. The defective gene passes down from both parents to the child and causes albinism.

Nigeria, our dear country, has her fair share of albinos or persons with albinism. News report has it   that there is an estimated six million Nigerians with that genetic disorder. According to TAF, over 600,000 Nigerian albinos suffered discrimination from their families, schoolmates and peers. There are cases of killing of albino children (infanticide), failure to enroll albino in schools as well as not giving special attention to pupils and students who are suffering from albinism in terms of getting them to sit close to blackboard due to their eye defects. Other daunting challenges faced by albinos are employment and workplace discrimination. Not only are albinos denied employment opportunities (perhaps due to their visual impairment), the few who manages to even get employed are equally discriminated against. On August 15, 2015, one 23-year-old albino, Ugochukwu Ugogbua, allegedly committed suicide at his Festac Town home in Lagos due to the discrimination and stigmatisation he suffered from the society.  

There are two major health challenges albinos suffered. They are eye impairment and skin cancer. It is said that too much exposure to sun usually make their skins freckled and if not urgently treated do lead to skin cancer. In 2008 the Federal Government reportedly asked the National Hospital Abuja to treat albinos’ with skin cancer free while it pays. Unfortunately, this laudable programme under which over two thousand albinos have benefitted was cancelled by the National Hospital Abuja in September 2015 due to unpaid N50m medical bill accumulated on those treated for skin cancer. This is saddening!

The good news however is that at the symposium organised to mark the 2016 International Albinism Awareness Day, the Chief Medical Director of National Hospital, Dr. Jaff Momoh, gave directive that the free cancer treatment for albinos should re-commence with immediate effect. This is a noble gesture. However, government should clear off the N50m debt owed NHA while public spirited Nigerians should equally help out. Meanwhile, the representative of the Minister of Education at same event talked about a Ministerial Action Plan on Education which includes some positive actions by the ministry for persons with albinism. Again at the programme, the Central Bank of Nigeria says it has set aside two per cent of its Micro Small Medium Enterprises for Persons with Albinism to access.

It behooves you and I to stop discrimination against albinos. They are not accursed or punishment from gods. Their body parts are useless if used for any charms. Sex with them will not cure anyone of HIV/AIDS infection. They are all unfounded superstitions! In case you have an albino child, don’t throw him or her away. All you need do is protect the child against sun and cater to his or her special academic needs.

Jide is Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.