Turning the Tide: Preventing violence against PWA

Written by: Regina Paulose

“The cruelty to and murder of African albinos has not been as widely publicized in our popular media. It should. There’s nothing more abhorrent, nothing more evil than the use of a human soul to expiate some evil spirit; nothing worse than to inflict repeated, continuous pain to a child whose only sin is having been born with a minor genetic variation.”1

In countries such as Tanzania, persons with albinism, (hereinafter PWA) suffer tremendously due to the effects of their genetic condition and are dehumanized.  There is “endemic and structural discrimination”  against PWA.2 This discrimination, mainly unspoken, is as a result of superstition and myth.3 There are multiple problems that PWA face. Some examples include lack of access to health care, infanticide and child abandonment, inadequate educational opportunities which results in a lack of employment opportunities.4 While all of these issues deserve significant attention and are of grave importance, this article will focus on crimes perpetrated against PWA.

First, it is important to understand the operation and prominence of witchcraft in countries such as Tanzania. Traditional African religions tend to “personify evil” and “believers often blame witches or sorcerers for attacking their life-force, causing illness or other harm. They seek to protect themselves with ritual acts, sacred objects and traditional medicines.” These practices (known as witchcraft) serves “to explain anything inexplicable.”5 These traditional African religious beliefs Saharan Africa.  Witch doctors reinforce superstitions about PWA and their advice is sought out after, even among high level government officials.6 Witch Doctors prepare “muti”7 or potions using PWA body parts.

Common superstitions about PWA are that their “body parts can lead to power and wealth” or contain “magical properties.”8 Other superstitions are even more horrifying. There are beliefs that sexual intercourse with a PWA can “cure” HIV/AIDS.9 Some believe that if a PWA “screams” during the amputation that the “spell” will be more potent. Therefore, while they are being dismembered, in most cases victims are alive, and are more likely to be children because of their innocence (which also makes the spell more potent). 10

These superstitious beliefs fuel crimes of murder, mutilation, and organ trafficking. PWA’s are victims of brutal murders. One journalist described, “[t]he attacks on [PWA] are often carried out with machetes. The weapons, left over from wars, are used in daily life with nonchalance.”  Only few seem to survive these episodes. The brutality is unimaginable. Peter Ash, Director of Under the Sun, told the story of Mariam Masala, a young girl between 5-8 years of age, where attackers cut her throat cut and drained her blood into a saucepan. The attackers then drank the blood and in front of her siblings and cut off her legs.11

PWA’s are victims of  organ and limb trafficking. A limb of a PWA can be sold for between $500 to $2000.  There are other reports which indicate that “a complete set of body parts” can be worth $75,000.12 These limbs are used in muti and available for the superstitious who believe that they can win elections (a time in which many PWA hide in their homes because of the increase in attacks).13 Even after death, PWA have no peace from trafficking. “There are concerns that the market is an incentive for the desecration of graves and subsequent robbery of body parts. To date, OHCHR has received reliable information on 19 cases of grave robberies in two countries.”14

The cause for concern is not exaggerated. A recent report indicates that approximately 128 killings, 177 attacks,15 from 23 countries16 have been reported. Tanzania had the largest number reported totaling 139 reports.17 Although the trends in the amount of killings has reportedly decreased, body parts of those with albinism remains lucrative.18

Although the statistics are not on point with the crimes that are articulated above (mainly due to problems collecting data), one thing is certain, the international community is gaining awareness of the problem, but more needs to be done. Since 2009, the Human Rights Council has had active dialogue on the issue. On February 27th the Advisory Committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council was presented with more information regarding Albinism and the human rights violations which are occurring. The Advisory Committee is currently seeking to address the problem in a Resolution to be presented to the Human Rights Council. Part of the discussion also involves how PWA should be classified under international human rights treaties so that they can be afforded more protection.

In the meantime, domestic laws need to be enacted and enforced to protect this particular group.  A country such as Tanzania, where most cases are  reported, could take a leading role regionally and internationally on preventing violence against PWA. While great lip service has been paid to condemning attacks against PWA, countries need to take on  “cultural” awareness of this issue. Top down approaches are never enough to solve deep rooted cultural beliefs. Grassroots actions which involve raising awareness or dispelling superstitions may be a good starting point, however hard and large this task  may be. Governments can do more to address corruption of local law enforcement, who receive money from bribes, allowing trafficking to occur.19 Penal laws should further reflect groups such as PWA specifically or existing crimes should incorporate “aggravating factors” for violence against PWA.  Finally, issues of funding prosecution needs to be addressed and these cases needs to be taken seriously.20

1Pius Kamau, “Three Year Old Albino – Victim of Witchcraft Sacrifice” Huff Post IMPACT, May 1, 2012, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pius-kamau/three-year-old-albino-vic_b_1462991.html

2Under the Same Sun, “Classifying Albinism: Transforming Perceptions & Ushering Protection With the Help of International Human Rights Law” Presented to the Advisory Committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council, p.4, January 2014.

3Idem

4Under the Same Sun, “Children with Albinism in Africa: Murder Mutilation and Violence: A Report on Tanzania” June 19, 2012, pp.10-17 available at:

5Erol Barnett, “Witchcraft in Tanzania: the good, the bad, the persecution” CNN October 8, 2012, available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/10/05/world/africa/tanzania-witchcraft/

6Dan Gilgoff, “As Tanzania’s Albino Killings Continue, Unanswered questions raise fears” National Geographic Daily News, October 11, 2013, available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131011-albino-killings-witch-doctors-tanzania-superstition/

7Bob Rickard, “Albino Muti Murders” ForteanTimes, March 2010, available at: http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/misc/3043/albino_muti_murders.html (hereinafter Rickard)

8Al Jazeera, “Spell of the Albino” December 14, 2011, available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/africainvestigates/2011/11/201111185428766652.html

9UN Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Persons with Albinism” September 12, 2013, para 17, A/HRC/25/57.

10 Ibid para 21

11Rickard

12IRIN, “SWAZILAND: Trade in Albino Body Parts Moving South” August 25, 2010, available at: http://www.irinnews.org/report/90281/swaziland-trade-in-albino-body-parts-moving-south

13Daily News, “Swazi Albino’s Fear Muti Killings Before Elections”  May 24, 2013, available at: http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/news/swazi-albinos-fear-muti-killings-before-elections-1.1521290#.UxGg0JWPLcs

14UN Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Persons with Albinism” September 12, 2013, para 37, A/HRC/25/57.

15Attacks are defined in the report as survivors of mutilations, violence, grave violations, and asylum cases. Under the Same Sun, “Reported Attacks of Persons with Albinism (PWA) -Summary” February 19, 2014

16Idem

17Idem

18Under the Same Sun, “Children with Albinism in Africa: Murder Mutilation and Violence: A Report on Tanzania” June 19, 2012, available at: http://www.underthesamesun.com/resources

19Rickard

20Idem