Malawi’s Constitution says all persons are entitled to education but the right is restricted to learners with albinism, according to the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (Apam).
Apam President, Overstone Kondowe, observes that with regard to right to education, learners with albinism in the country have been restricted in two ways.
Kondowe says first, learners with albinism suffer – to varying extents depending on the individual —from a range of medical conditions affecting their vision.
“They therefore need devices such as reading glasses or magnifying glasses to assist in their reading and learning,” he says.
Kondowe says learners with albinism need large textbooks (14 point or larger) which should be placed in the front of the classroom so that they can see more clearly what is written on the blackboard.
“But these materials are not available to learners with albinism. The education policy and national education sector plan are silent on the needs of people with albinism,” he says.
Apam estimates there are between 7,500 and 8,000 persons with albinism in Malawi, and tens of thousands on the continent.
The number of learners with albinism in Malawi is unknown but it is a known fact that the majority who are from poor families face a lot of problems at school to do with their medical conditions.
For instance, one primary school girl with albinism says she has problems reading from the blackboard and that, as a result, she struggles to learn.
“The saddest part of my situation is that my teacher is reluctant to assist me,” the 13-year-old says. “He hurls abuse at me each time I ask for help.”
Section 30 (1) of the Malawi Constitution stipulates that “all persons and peoples have a right to development and therefore to the enjoyment of economic , social, cultural and political development and women, children and the disabled in particular shall be given special consideration in the application of this right”.
It goes on to say that “the State shall take all the necessary measures for the realisation of the right to development. Such measures shall include, among other things, equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, shelter, employment and infrastructure”.
Kondowe says the lack of knowledge about albinism among teachers has resulted in children with the condition repeating classes and dropping out in some cases because they struggle to follow lessons.
“Teachers also lack knowledge about albinism and do not support learners by creating a conducive environment,” he says.
He also says while learners with albinism need protective gear from head to toes, school uniforms in government schools are short-sleeved, and that pairs of trousers are not allowed in primary schools.
“In addition, in mainstream schools, especially at primary level, learners with albinism often have to endure verbal abuse and bullying from other learners and even teachers,” Kondowe says.
“Often the combination of verbal abuse, bullying, difficulties in following lessons and poverty lead many to drop out of school. There is no curriculum or topic on albinism.”
Albinism is derived from the Latin word albus, meaning ‘white’. It can occur in plants and animals.
In humans, albinism is as a result of a genetic disorder in which there is partial or total lack of the pigment melanin in the eyes, skin and hair that occurs in all populations.
Melanin is a dark biological pigment that is formed as an end product of metabolism.
People with albinism are more susceptible to harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure because they lack melanin. UV exposure is highly detrimental to the hypo pigmented skin.
People with albinism must deal with photophobia, decreased visual acuity, extreme sun sensitivity and skin cancer among several other issues.
One pupil with albinism speaks of how most of the time she leads a solitary life, saying most of her peers and classmates avoids her because of the colour of her skin.
“I do not have a single friend in my class. My classmates avoid me. They say they cannot interact with me because of how I look. So I am alone most of the time,” she says.
Kondowe says there is no curriculum or topic on albinism in school so that communities could appreciate problems persons with albinism face in their day-to- day lives.
“This is only found on the topic of genetics at secondary school. This would have been incorporated in detail and right from primary school in many subjects or training modules in higher education,” he says.
He says persons with albinism need spaces in institutions such as Kamuzu Academy sponsored by government to increase their population visibility
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