The persecution of people with albinism continues and is especially rife in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa. Despite legal measures, protection and convictions remain weak.
The persecution of people with albinism (PWA) continues and is especially rife in Tanzania, Malawi and other parts of East Africa. Despite increasing international visibility and recent laws for protection, PWA continue to be persecuted, hunted down for body parts many believe to have healing properties. Those working in the field continue to express serious concerns about mutilation, death and the life of fear and isolation under a cloud of profound stigma. GDW caught up with DON SAWATZKY, Director of Operations for the international organisation Under the Same Sun to discuss the situation confronting PWA, why the worrying trend continues, and what can be done.
GDW: Is persecution the major problem that people with albinism have to face?
DS: Yes, absolutely, more so in the rural areas. Still, if the attacks and killings stopped today, most of the hardships related to albinism, especially on the African continent, would carry on as if nothing had happened.
The stigma, discrimination and skin cancer-related suffering and deaths that affect the everyday life of a person with albinism, would still be agonisingly difficult for most. There would still be immense hardships to access education, employment, medical and social services and general inclusion. The law is not the problem…. The problem is a lack of political will and judicious enforcement of laws which already exist.
The law is not the problem…. The problem is a lack of political will and judicious enforcement of laws which already exist.
While the psychological trauma related to the vigilance, scanning and terror of wondering if you are being hunted by family, friend or stranger for your body parts would subside, the profound marginalisation is still there in full force.
While most people with albinism in Africa live with the fear of being attacked due to their albinism, especially in the build-up to elections, the vast majority never will be. On the other hand, most will die prematurely of skin cancer due to a lack of melanin and self-care knowledge. In Tanzania less than 10 per cent reach age 30, and only about 2 per cent will live to celebrate their 40th birthday due to skin cancer. Hopefully, these numbers are now changing due to increased advocacy, education and access to new resources in the country.
Can you explain the root causes of this persecution?
Myths surrounding the Muti murders or “medicine” killings of persons with albinism (PWA) have a deep, longstanding history that extends back in time and are a familiar concept to most Africans. Tragically, many attacks and killings of PWA in Africa are not documented or reported. Stigma and discrimination against PWA is endemic to African culture, not just Tanzania, and PWA are deeply misunderstood and misrepresented worldwide. This is due solely to the colour of their skin.
Legends and myths abound and most myths reduce PWA to ghosts, magical beings or curses. On rare occasions, the discrimination is reversed and persons with albinism are “deified” into “gods”. Either way, they rarely get to enjoy their status as normal human beings.
In many African countries it is believed that the body parts of a PWA hold magical powers that can make someone instantly prosperous, powerful or lucky in work, love or life if harnessed by a witch-doctor and made into a charm, amulet, talisman or other potion. This belief is held in at least 25 African countries where attacks have been reported. Attacks tend to escalate in the months leading up to elections in these countries. I assure you that if the President or Prime Minister had a child who was mutilated or killed for ritual purposes, the existing laws would suddenly become very effective.
I assure you that if the President or Prime Minister had a child who was mutilated or killed for ritual purposes, the existing laws would suddenly become very effective.
How many cases were reported in the last years?
Since 2000 there have been around 448 reported attacks in 25 African nations: over 172 murders and some 276 attacks not resulting in death (which include survivors of mutilations, violence, rape, attempted abductions, missing persons, grave violations, asylum and permanent residency cases). It is important to note though that many attacks and killings of PWA in Africa are not documented or reported.
How effective have government measures been to protect people with albinism?
To date, the Tanzanian government has done little more than talk and promise. Other than displacing children with albinism from their families and communities into profoundly under-resourced government schools, little else has been done. Protecting children by placing them in government schools for disabled children may have been a good short term precaution, but it also segregated and isolated them from their families, communities and society. Now, some of the children have been held there for up to seven years. It has now become a long-term human rights problem with no proposed solution by the government – they are now “internally displaced persons”.
Out of all documented attacks against PWA in Tanzania since 2000, only around nine have been tried in court to the point of conviction. Do the math. The attacks and killings continue with impunity.
The law is not the problem. There is sufficient law in existence to protect all PWA within Tanzania and many other African countries. The problem is a lack of political will and judicious enforcement of laws which already exist. PWA should not require special laws as if they are like every other citizen. They should simply be treated as equals and the laws applied as if they were valued citizens of their country. I assure you that if the President or Prime Minister had a child who was mutilated or killed for ritual purposes, the existing laws would suddenly become very effective.
The greatest enemy against PWA finding justice for the violation of their human rights in most African countries is the lack of social and political will. Very few citizens care enough to do anything – “they’re just albinos” – and are viewed as less than human.
This inhumane and criminal activity is treated with impunity in many African countries.
What measures do you feel are still needed to end the persecution and ensure effective protection?
I would like to see a change in the lack of social and political will towards an abundance of social and political will for the humanising, normalising of presence and social inclusion of their fellow citizens with albinism.
To offer protection and reintegration, societies must also want this, since they are the ones who need to integrate with fellow citizens with albinism. Governments have to address albinism in the same way they address HIV, Aids and malaria. They need an ongoing, country-wide education campaign to correct myths, misunderstandings and fears within society about albinism.
Reintegration without creating awareness will only recreate the problem. How can PWA feel safe if their family and community do not understand their predicament?
But social change is a long slow process. It takes generations to stop discrimination and introduce human rights, especially in rural areas. You don’t have to look past the African/American situation to verify this. Many people had to die and generations had to “die off” before the average citizen of African descent could count on the laws of the land and their community for protection and equality.
Like the USA after segregation, and like South Africa after Apartheid, PWA in Tanzania are in for a long, slow, painful, messy, multi-generational journey toward human dignity, human equality and human rights.
How can the international community help?
Raise awareness about this issue wherever they go, including embassies in affected countries. It is also helpful to seek information. One can consult various sources online, including the Under the Same Sun website, our Facebook page for updates as well as our Youtube channel.