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SINGH: Safety of albino people needs to be addressed

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What is albinism? It is a rare, non-transmissible, genetically inherited condition that affects people worldwide of all genders, ethnicities and nationalities. The most common effects of albinism are the lack of melanin production in hair, skin and eyes (known as oculocutaneous albinism).  The lack of pigmentation makes people affected by albinism vulnerable to sunburn and skin cancer from sun exposure. It may even cause visual problems such as photophobia, a severe sensitivity to light. Albinism is widely misunderstood socially, as it is a rare condition with obvious signs in physical appearances — 1 in 20,000 people are said to have the condition.

The physical appearance of people affected by albinism generates false beliefs and myths that are dangerous in themselves because they foster the marginalization and social exclusion of those with the condition. Some myths state that albinism is a result of incest and inbreeding, or that it is a form of punishment from the gods and that drinking the bodily fluids of someone with the condition will enable you to have “magical powers.” The myths are a result of both ignorance and a lack of education on the condition. Those affected with albinism belong to a unique group whose social and human rights have gone unnoticed for years. This perpetuates everything from discrimination, to engraved stigma, to violence towards them across the world. The complexity of the discrimination surrounding albinism touches on a variety of human rights issues including discrimination based on disability and skin color, harmful conventional practices, the trafficking and trading of body parts for witchcraft, infanticide and abandonment of young. The outcasting of albino people is especially detrimental in African countries where rules and regulations are harder to enforce.

To help diminish the abandonment and stigmatization towards albino people in Nigeria, Rep. Linus Okorie (Ebonyi-PDP) sponsored a bill to improve the welfare of albino people. The bill passed its second reading on Thursday, Jan. 19. In the debate over the bill, Okorie stated that the lower chamber would not be an actual representative of the people until and unless even the most vulnerable people are protected and are able to live their lives to the fullest potential. The bill is an act to create a strong establishment of the National Agency for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, which is in the lower house as of now. This is a progressive step, as the fate albino people in third world countries is awful. They live in fear, and every day is a gamble with their and their loved ones’ lives. A simple question, like if should they go to the market for food, carries an inconceivable risk of slaughter or harm to satisfy a barbaric demand. Grace Mazzah, an albino member on the board of the Association of People with Albinism, is extremely conscious of the burden and price on her head. "It really raises fear," she said. "Why should people hunt me like they're hunting for animals to eat?" In her country, Malawi, four albino people were murdered, one of them being an infant. It is common for parents to remove their children from the education system completely as they would like to avoid the harm. It is ridiculous that minorities are still being marginalized and subjected to such violence and hatred in the 21st century. Diversity should be celebrated, as it is important to learn value from one another. But to do this we must have a certain level of comprehension about each other in order to facilitate both collaboration and cooperation. 

Another theory or explanation offered by the Washington Post for the increased crime against albino people is that the violence is directly correlated to the price of food and other necessities, and the higher the prices rise the more crimes are committed. A complete set of albino body parts, including the four limbs, ears, genitals, tongue and nose can go for up to $75,000 on the black market, according to a 2009 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The body parts are used to create healing potions backed by erroneous myths. According to Amnesty International, more than 7,000-10,000 albino people living in Malawi lead their lives in constant fear caused by superstitions surrounding their physical appearance, but sadly, the Malawi Government hasn’t been successful in securing the welfare of albino people. It is imperative to help those with no voice or no representation in society by helping others become more educated and accepting. The bill for the National Agency for Albinism and Hypopigmentation is the step forward that we need to end the deleterious practices and marginalization of albino people.

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Mondays.

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