Supporting Malawi’s fight to Protect People with Albinism
By Medina Latic, Advocacy and Government Relations Fellow, Amnesty International USA
People tell me they will sell me. Someone said I was worth K6 million (US$10,000). I felt pained that a price tag can be put on me.
— a man with albinism talking to Amnesty International in 2016
In some countries having albinism can get you killed.
Albinism is a genetic condition caused by deficits of melanin that results in lighter hair and skin color. In Malawi, prejudice, superstition, and the lack of adequate protection by the government has resulted in people with the condition living in fear for their lives. Superstitious people in the country say albinism is a disease, others say it is a curse caused by infidelity, and others relate it to so-called “ traditional magic”, all of which have made the body parts of people with albinism valuable on the informal illegal market in Malawi. Attacks against people with albinism are so severe that the United Nations estimates about 10,000 of these individuals in Malawi are facing what they call “systematic elimination.”
In a briefing paper released in June, Amnesty International found that “Attacks on people with albinism have spiked in recent years in Malawi. […] At least 18 people have been murdered and another five have disappeared since November 2014. Over this same period, we have recorded 107 crimes against people with albinism, including attempted kidnappings and the desecration of graves in search of bones.” Toddlers are being abducted from their homes, teens kidnapped from sports games, and women mutilated as they travel through their own village. Those with albinism are even targeted by family members who follow the superstitions.
Efforts to help people with albinism have been increasing, but they need more support. Groups like the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi are taking on the formidable task of educating the general public about the need to stop to attacks and protect people with albinism while also pressing the Malawian government to meet it obligations to protect people with the condition.
In March of 2017, the President of Malawi released a statement condemning the attacks on citizens with albinism and urged the police to move forward with arrests. It is time for the president to follow through and ensure proper training for police in investigating and handling crimes against people with albinism and prosecute those suspected of being involved. The Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi says it is aware of 148 registered abuses committed against people with albinism, including 22 murders. In addition to the need for more resources, the biggest challenge remains the absence of political will to bring perpetrators of the abuses to justice. Another obstacle is that human rights defenders who are working on these cases are receiving threats to stop working these cases.
The United States and the international community can make a difference by supporting groups like the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi and others, working with the Malawian government to bring persons responsible for abuses against people with albinism to justice, and supporting educational efforts and initiatives to raise awareness. It is estimated that about 7,000–10,000 people in Malawi alone live with albinism. They should not have to wake up each day and wonder if it is going to be their last.