In the Democratic Republic of Congo, protecting and empowering children with albinism in schools

Children living with albinism in the Democratic Republic of Congo often face discrimination and exclusion from their peers, causing some of them to skip school or drop out altogether.

By Mehdi Meddeb
A child with albinism in his classroom with classmates, Democratic Republic of Congo
26 September 2016

Children living with albinism in the Democratic Republic of Congo often face discrimination and exclusion from their peers, causing some of them to skip school or drop out altogether. Learn how UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to make sure that children with albinism and other vulnerable students get the support they need to stay in school.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 26 September 2016 – "I had to fight to get here, but mostly against myself," says Michel Mualaba as he overlooks the city of Brazzaville from the terrace of his brand new offices. Michel, a 35-year-old lawyer and financial affairs expert, was raised in a supportive, middle-class family. But he has faced discrimination his entire life because he has albinism.

Albinism is a condition that deprives the hair, eyes, and skin from melanin, our body's natural pigment. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in other African countries, people with albinism still endure fear and rejection. Schools are no exception.

“Socially, I did have friends, although many other children were afraid of me,” Michel says. To protect himself, he had to learn to build a virtual wall around him to withstand the mockery.

"It wasn't always easy, I had to hang on,” he admits.

On top of these issues with his peers, Michel also had to cope with impaired vision caused by his albinism. “I always needed to sit at the front of the classroom, and sometimes, had to be literally inches away from the blackboard because of my sight problems," he says.

Luckily, Michel did not have to overcome the prejudices alone. “In my family, we all had to go through this: my albino brother is now a doctor, my sister, also albino is an interior designer, and my other sister, also albino, is completing her university degree in communication," he says.

Today, Michel continues to work hard to be a role model to younger people with albinism, including victims of prejudice and discrimination.

Inclusive education

In an effort to support the most vulnerable, including children with albinism, UNICEF is working with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Education to implement social protection measures in approximately 5,000 schools across the country. This programme provides grants to schools to cover fees for students from lower-income households, as well as school supplies and extracurricular activities.

The social protection programme will also take steps to reduce absenteeism and exclusion of vulnerable children in classrooms. An early warning system for absenteeism will be implemented, and tutoring sessions will be organized for children with learning difficulties.

Although there is no statistical survey data on absenteeism among children with albinism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, anecdotal evidence suggests that these children have a higher rate of attrition in schools.

“What is certain is that there is a tendency: these kids do suffer from discrimination, mockery, and so some end up dropping out,” says Aimé Dunia, Education Programme Officer for UNICEF. “That is why we are launching a social protection programme to support the most vulnerable children. We will subsidize these schools so that they do not drive away these children.”

A model student

Around 1,000 kilometres away from Kinshasa, near the city of Kisangani, Trésor, 10, is facing the same difficulties that Michel experienced twenty years earlier. While taking notes, his face is just inches from the paper of his notebook. He doesn’t have glasses because his family cannot afford them.

In his primary school in the Tshopo district, there have been some improvements to how children with albinism are taught. School supervision is more careful, including his teacher, Mr. Jean Bonnard Yeye, 65.

Mr. Yeye recognizes that Trésor has to take extra steps to participate because of his sight problems. “You can tell he's making significant efforts as he's forced to stand up to get as close as possible to the blackboard,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Trésor is one of the best students in his class, and a genuine source of pride for his teacher. "Trésor is an attentive, focused student,” says Mr. Yeye. “He writes well and works very hard."

"It's very important to provide schooling to albino children,” he adds. “They are just kids, like any other."