HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A glittering crown on her head and a bouquet of flowers in her hands, Andreia Solange Sicato Muhitu beamed at being named the co-winner of the the inaugural Mr. and Miss Albinism Southern Africa pageant.
The 28-year-old Angolan model has competed in beauty pageants in her home country since her teens and won some of them. But none made her feel more beautiful or purposeful as the pageant for people with albinism that was held this month in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
“I can be that inspiration for young girls, especially those with albinism, to feel comfortable and beautiful in their own skin,” Muhitu said. “That is the strong message we are hoping to send out there.”
Albinism, an inherited genetic condition that reduces melanin pigment production, is “still profoundly misunderstood,” according to the U.N. human rights agency. People with the condition have pale-colored skin, hair and eyes, are vulnerable to sun exposure and bright light, and often have eyesight problems and are prone to developing skin cancer.
Although traditional beauty pageants have come under criticism for objectifying women’s bodies, Muhitu thinks the Oct. 14 event where she was crowned could bring about positive change in parts of Africa where people with albinism are treated with disdain, ridicule and even violence driven by dangerously misguided superstitions.
“This crown gives me the opportunity to change the lives of people living with albinism in ways I never imagined, not just in my country, but in the entire region. I don’t feel shamed, I feel empowered,” she said, shaking hands with people eager to congratulate her.
The superstitions include the belief that having sex with a person with albinism can cure HIV or that their skin, hair, feet, hands, eyes, genitals or breasts have supernatural powers to bring good luck or boost the effectiveness of witchcraft potions, according to the U.N. and rights activists. In Malawi and Tanzania, people with the condition are sometimes killed for their body parts.
They typically face daily prejudice despite anti-discrimination laws. She and other pageant participants talked about rejection by families and fathers who denied paternity once they realized a child had albinism.
The contestants also highlighted how they need affordable skincare services and cancer treatment but more often receive hate, mocking or insults.
Muhitu, who works as head of the tourism department in southeastern Angola’s Cuando Cubango province, said ridicule at school almost derailed her dreams, but celebrating her skin color is helping her and others push back against stereotypes and stigma.
“The progressive laws on paper and the ugly reality on the ground are miles apart,” Muhitu said, adding: “It is time for soft power. We can change mindsets through modeling contests, storytelling, music and any outlets that are interesting. Art forms can be a powerful tool to change mindsets.”
Albinism is more common in sub-Saharan Africa, where it affects about 1 in 5,000 people. The prevalence can reach 1 in 1,000 in some populations in Zimbabwe and in other ethnic groups in southern Africa, compared to 1 in every 17,000 to 20,000 in North America and Europe, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The 18 contestants who participated in the regional pageant in Zimbabwe came from countries that also included South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola and Tanzania. They included fashion designers, health workers and professional models.
Waving their national flags, they entertained a small audience with poetry, song and dance performances. They elegantly cat-walked in professional wear, evening gowns and African animal skin outfits before answering questions from a panel of judges on a variety of social and economic topics.
Held under the theme, “Into the light,” the pageant was aimed at shining a spotlight on the “boundless talents” of people with albinism in a region where they often face harsh treatment and stigma, event organizer Brenda Mudzimu, who also has albinism, said.
“We are mentally and physically tortured, yet we are no different from any other person except skin color,” said Mudzimu, whose Miss Albinism Trust founded the event as a local Zimbabwean contest in 2018.
The contestants were judged for their charisma, confidence, poise, quality of walk and intellect. The Mr. Albinism Southern Africa title was claimed by Zimbabwean Ntandoyenkosi Mnkandla, 26, a trainee paralegal.
Winners also received cash prizes, trophies, medals and flowers for categories such as Miss Personality and the People’s Choice awards.
Muhitu, who received $250 for winning the Miss Albinism prize, commended the growing number of events that celebrate people with albinism in Africa.
“Pageants are a powerful way of showcasing our limitless potential. I love them and I want to keep on inspiring young girls to follow their dreams,” she said. “People living with albinism have dreams, they have talent, and they are amazing people. But they will stay in the background if they are not given a chance to sparkle.”
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