People with albinism: hunted for their body parts

Over the past eight years, more than 600 attacks on children and adults with albinism were reported in 26 countries.

From the photo series by Marinka Masséus entitled Under the Same Sun

In a ground-breaking report where she identifies witchcraft as a root cause of these attacks, the UN independent expert on the rights of people with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, uses the generally agreed definition of ‘witchcraft’ as it refers to negative occult or mystical forces, although she recognizes that on rare occasions it has been associated with positive connotations of empowerment and cleansing.

These attacks consisted in hacking body parts that were removed from the victims, alive or dead, and brought to so-called witch-doctors to make potions or produce amulets and charms thought to bring good luck or wealth to the end user.

Not only can people with albinism be used for ritualistic purposes but they themselves can also fall victim to accusations of witchcraft: children born with albinism can be perceived as a curse on their families who are quick to abandon them, exclude them and their mothers from the community, or even commit infanticide.

Albinism is a rare genetically inherited condition which occurs worldwide regardless of race. It commonly results in the lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to sun exposure. This can lead to skin cancer and severe visual impairment.

An estimated one in every 17,000 to 20,000 people in North America and Europe have albinism. The condition is much more prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, where one in 1,400 people are affected in Tanzania, and as many as one in 1,000 in Zimbabwe and other specific ethnic groups in Southern Africa.

The genetic rarity inherited by persons with albinism makes their condition difficult to understand socially and medically. In some countries, their physical appearance is also the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition that can subject people with albinism to violent physical attacks.

Calling for enhanced oversight

Although Ero stresses the usefulness of traditional medicine, she has witnessed situations where the difference between witchcraft practitioners and traditional doctors was hard to establish.

“I have seen advertisements in newspapers posted by “traditional healers” offering to make clients richer, cure incurable diseases, secure release from prison, and making other claims that are more suggestive of witchcraft than traditional medicine,” she said.

As a study by UNICEF infers, the notions of ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ were introduced to Africa by the first European explorers, colonialists and missionaries. These concepts were employed to translate pejoratively terms used in vernacular languages for local realities.

The expert further highlights that unlike traditional medicine, that over centuries has been adapted to contemporary contexts, the use of body parts of people with albinism is a recent practice, as demonstrated by the rapid spread of attacks over the last ten years.

“Attacks and use of body parts of people with albinism, regardless of the purpose for which they are used, cannot under any circumstances be considered an elemental part of any legitimate practice, whether linked to witchcraft or to traditional medicine,” she stressed.

“Such acts inherently constitute criminal activity and other human rights violations. Consequently, they cannot be justified on the basis of tradition, traditional medicine, or any other ground.”

Ero lists three types of perpetrators in this gruesome industry: those who hunt, attack, kill and dismember the victims and transport their body parts; those who present themselves as witch-doctors and prepare the rituals; and those who buy charms and potions under erroneous beliefs.

The expert points out that one of the major challenges in prosecuting attacks has been the inability to identify and prosecute the last two categories of perpetrators. The issue is further complicated by the lack of effective oversight over the practice of traditional healers, and the absence of clear national policies on the issue.

“The collection of evidence … is often hindered by the secrecy surrounding witchcraft practice, the participation of family members in perpetrating attacks, the inability or fear of victims and their families to report attacks, as well as the limited financial, human and technical resources at the disposal of law enforcement agents in the concerned countries,” she added.

Small victories

On 3 March 2017, Ero welcomed the conviction by the High Court of South Africa of the mastermind of the murder and dismemberment of the body parts of a woman with albinism.

The 20 year old victim was kidnapped in August 2015 in a village of Kwa-Zulu Natal province and later found dead. Her body parts were collected for rituals that would supposedly produce wealth for the mastermind’s clients.

“Such cases are fundamental to understanding the patters and root causes of ongoing attacks against people with albinism,” Ero said.

The independent expert also stressed that addressing deeply rooted beliefs such as the belief of the efficacy of witchcraft using human body parts requires community sensitization on the scientific explanations for albinism. Public education efforts should engage faith-based organizations, traditional leaders, people with albinism and their families.

A project carried-out by UNESCO in Tanzania — a country with one of the world’s highest prevalence rates for albinism — last year yielded a double digit increase in the percentage of people claiming knowledge about albinism, including its genetic basis and that it is not a curse.

Learn more about albinism and discover inspirational stories told by people with albinism: http://albinism.ohchr.org/

Find out how you can stand up for the rights of everyone, everywhere: http://www.standup4humanrights.org/en/