Persecution of people with albinism
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Persecution of people with albinism (sometimes abbreviated PWA) is based on the belief that certain body parts of albinistic people can transmit magical powers. Such superstition is present especially in some parts of the African Great Lakes region, it has been promulgated and exploited by witch doctors and others who use such body parts as ingredients in rituals, concoctions and potions with the claim that their magic will bring prosperity to the user (muti or medicine murder)
As a result, people with albinism have been persecuted, killed and dismembered, and graves of albinos dug up and desecrated. At the same time, people with albinism have also been ostracised and even killed for exactly the opposite reason, because they are presumed to be cursed and bring bad luck. The persecutions of people with albinism take place mostly in Sub-Saharan African communities, especially among East Africans.:81
Albinism is a genetically inherited condition which is very rare and, worldwide, affects approximately one in twenty thousand people Although rare in the western world, albinism is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa, likely as a result of consanguinity. Both parents, who may or may not be albinos themselves, must carry the gene if it is to be passed on to the child. Albinism occurs in both males and females and is not specific to any race or ethnic group. Statistics prove that fifty percent of albinistic people in Tanzania have a known albinistic relative,:80 although very few understand or are educated about the medical and genetic causes of this condition. Many believe it is a punishment from God or bad luck, and that their "disease" could be contagious, which is often the view of even members of the medical and professional community. These misconceptions, coupled with the lack of education, are some of the key reasons that albinism is so heavily persecuted. This lack of knowledge about people with albinism means that folktales and superstition in the name of witchcraft take the place of medical and scientific facts in the minds of many native Africans, with and without albinism, which in turn has major effects on the social integration of albinistic people into African society. Ninety-eight percent of albinos die by the age of forty for reasons which could easily be prevented.
Current statistics of persecution of albinistic people
A report was released on 1 April 2014 by the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, office of the Canadian charity Under the Same Sun. Titled Reported Attacks of Persons with Albinism, the document reviews 180 countries and lists 129 recent killings and 181 other attacks, all within 23 African countries. These attacks include mutilation, violence, violation of graves, and cases of asylum-seeking.
In Tanzania, albinos represent one in every 1429 births, a much higher rate than in any other nation. According to Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, an albino member of parliament, there are 6977 officially registered albinos in Tanzania. However, it is believed that there may be up to 17000 undocumented. A number of albinos have migrated to the Dar es Salaam area, as they feel safer in an urban setting. Tanzania is thought to have the largest population of albinos in Africa. Albinos are especially persecuted in Shinyanga and Mwanza, where witch doctors have promoted a belief in the potential magical and superstitious properties of albinos' body parts. There are further issues which arise when there is lack of education about albinism. Fathers often suspect the mother of the albino child of infidelity with a white man or that the child is the ghost of a European colonist. This can cause immense strain on families and relationships. An albino child is often seen as a bad omen and treated as unwanted. Many albino babies become victims of infanticide due to these superstitious views.
After 2015 when Tanzania enacted tougher steps against violence against albinos, Malawi has seen a "steep upsurge in killings" with 18 reported killings since November 2014, and the likely toll being higher because of missing persons and unreported murders. President Peter Mutharika has formed a committee to study the situation.
Origins of myths and superstition causing persecution of people with albinism
African rituals and spiritual ideas about albinism have led to the brutal murder of and attacks on innocent men, women and especially children. These ideas have been around for many generations, but in recent years witch doctors have been teaching misconceived ideas about the promise of wealth, success and power when albino hair or limbs are used in a potion as part of witchcraft practices. This has gained public attention nationally and internationally as these crimes have been reported as crimes against human rights. "Infanticide, kidnapping, amputations, and decapitations, committed for purposes of supplying highly valued body parts used for amulets, which are then sold in underground witchcraft market.":79 Therefore, this causes great unrest and angst among the albino population, who must be protected and often live in a state of solitude simply to protect their own lives and to prevent being hunted like animals.:80
US congressman Gerry Connolly in 2010 introduced legislation to protect albinos and urge local governments to protect albinos, stating that "With their help and the passage of this resolution today, maybe we can bring an end to these horrific and heinous crimes."
It is clear that "the main driving forces underlying these profiling crimes are ignorance, myth, and superstition, such as the belief that individuals with albinism possess superpowers or that their body parts bestow fortune and health.":79 It is commonly known that in many communities, predominantly in Tanzania and parts of east Africa, superstitious views derived from ancient spiritual beliefs and reinforced by local witch doctors have been carried through centuries of ritualistic practices and mythical beliefs. This creates a serious risk to the lives of persons with albinism as the people believe it will bring them wealth, power, success or health depending on the variances of interpretation. Senior police officers claim that these body parts may be sold for as much as US$75,000 on the black market for a set of arms, legs, ears, and genitals from an individual with albinism.:79 Therefore, there has been an extensive amount of albino murders in the past decade especially in Burundi and Tanzania, where in 2007 more than seventy documented killings took place and one hundred and fifty body parts of albinos were reported to have been chopped off. Now the number of killings is well over one hundred, with low conviction rates, and albinos continue to have limbs severed, leaving many crippled or severely maimed, traumatized and tortured in the process.
This threat to albinos has the potential to cause extreme trauma and stress in their daily lives, which are already impacted by the stress of their condition, affecting skin and eyesight, placing albinos in a constant state of insecurity and distrust. According to Navi Pillay, the The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, because of the social and educational exclusion which can often occur there are often very low education levels in albinos, so that they lack social and economic tools to live productive lives. It also "is a common belief that albinos have low brain capacity and are unable to function at the same level as 'normal people'. Therefore, their ability to learn is often deficient due to the fact that one hundred percent of albinos suffer from some form of visual impairment and there often are not sufficient educational facilities, learning supplies or funding to support children with limited sight. This causes extensive bullying, exclusion from peer groups, low self-esteem and confidence, along with emotional and mental illness stemming from rejection by society and often family members who harbor superstitious myths about albinos. It is clearly revealed that no matter what mythical or spiritual mantra a person may be following or believing about albinos there is a general view in "nearly all cultures in the region of east Africa held and some still hold the view that albinos are less desirable beings who are less than human.":9 Therefore, homes and schools specifically for albinos, such as Buhangija Albino School, have been created as safe environments for learning, growing and permanently residing. Many children fear to ever return to their families, believing that they may be killed by even their closest relatives. Ukerewe Island is a key example of this, displayed in the film home to a large community of people with albinism where 62 albinos reside, most likely to remain in solitude and away from albino hunters.
The UN report submitted as part of the Human Rights Council resolution 23/13 of 13 June 2013 states that albinos are often regarded as "ghosts and not human beings, who can be wiped off the global map.":5 They are often persecuted as devils or people who are a bad omen or suffer from a curse. In some communities it is "believed that contact with them will bring bad luck, sickness or death.":5 Therefore, this is discrimination and mental and emotional persecution alone, where severe bullying of children, exclusion and abandonment occurs even without brutal physical persecution.
However, the issues which have created a spotlight for the Human Rights Council of the United Nations are the murder of albinos for medicine and dismemberment, and attacks and murder of persons with albinism. Another myth that imposes a risk on people with albinism is the belief that "sexual intercourse with a woman or a girl with albinism can cure HIV/AIDS.":5 Sacrifice of albinos is believed also to "appease the god of the mountain":5 when fear of a volcano eruption is possible, and it is believed that pulling the hair of albinos can bring good luck. It has also been reported that "miners use the bones of persons with albinism as amulets or bury them where they are drilling for gold.:5 The attacks which occur usually result in the death or severe mutilation of the albino, which according to the Human rights council can in "some cases involve trade in organs, trafficking in persons and sale of children, infanticide and abandonment of children.":6
Action against persecution
With escalating killings, President Kikwete publicly and repeatedly condemned witch doctors, their helpers and middlemen, and the clients, which include members of the police force, for these murders. Victims include children snatched or abducted from their parents. The killers and their accomplices use hair, arms, legs, skin, eyes, genitals, and blood in rituals or for witch potions.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has published a preliminary report regarding discrimination which has been directed toward people with albinism.:5 This report has been submitted as part of the Human Rights Council resolution 23/13 of 13 June 2013. It reinforced that "states would adopt specific measures to protect and preserve the rights to life and security of persons with albinism, as well as their right not to be subject to torture and ill treatment, and ensure their access to adequate health care, employment, education and justice.":1 The discrimination of albinos is often demonstrated by family members and relatives especially at birth, and ill-treatment by general society is widespread where there are severe issues of social exclusion and stigma. The Resolution 23/13 explains the Human Rights council's concerns about "attacks against persons with albinism".:3 Therefore, the Council encouraged the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to submit a report. Navi Pillay is the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As the representative, on 11 March 2014 she submitted a message which overviewed the current status of discrimination against persons with albinism and possible pathways for change and development in protection of albinos. "People with albinism have the right to live without fear or bullying, discrimination, social exclusion, killing and dismemberment." This footage was published on 13 March 2014 to overview the current situation surrounding albinos who live in fear of being murdered or captured for the purposes of murder medicine and witch doctors belief in the magical potential of albino hair and limbs.
Also a key issue is the influence of educating the public to encourage the removal of the social stigma associated with albinos in a society which does not completely understand that albinism is not a curse or a spiritual ghost, but simply a skin condition. In Zimbabwe albinos have been given the name sope which indicated that they are possessed by evil spirits, and in Tanzania they are known as nguruwe meaning 'pig', or zeru which means 'ghost'. The Report discusses the "most serious human rights violations faced by persons with albinism, primarily focusing on the ritual killings and attacks to which they are subjected.":3 It also includes recommendations to the international community and member states action towards persons with albinism.
Under the Same Sun led by albinism activist Peter Ash is organisation aiming to protect albinos from persecution and he delivered an oral intervention to the Human Rights Council in its 23rd session on 7 June 2013 on behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders project (EHAHRDP). His submission stated:
"Today I wish to address a little known but very serious human rights violation being perpetrated against people with albinism in many African nations. My NGO, Under the Same Sun, has evidence of the witchcraft related attacks and killings of 207 people with albinism in 16 African nations. The majority of the victims are children. From Tanzania and Burundi in the East, to Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire in the West and South Africa and Swaziland in the South, people born with this genetic condition live in fear every day. There exists a lucrative black market in albino body parts used to make what is promoted as powerful 'muti' medicine. The hand, arm or any albino organ is combined with other ingredients and then sold for thousands of dollars: $3,000 for a hand or over $100,000 for an entire set of organs. Sometimes body parts are even shipped across borders. We seek a day when people with albinism will take their rightful place in all levels of African society and such days of discrimination will be a faint memory. To this end, we call on this Council to pass a resolution condemning acts of violence and discrimination against persons with albinism and to request the OHCHR or the Advisory Committee to carry out a study on such violations. As Edmund Burke so rightly stated, "all that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
International federation Secretary General Bekele Geleta states that "Albinism is one of the most unfortunate vulnerabilities… and needs to be addressed immediately at international level.":20 This is a cry for international exposure and help to ensure that people suffering from albinism can be protected from inhumane killings and to be sheltered from the merciless hunters of albino body parts for their potions and spiritual medicine. "The main issues that should be addressed include skin cancer prevention education, stigma and discrimination denouncement, and swift prosecution of albino hunters and their sponsors.":80 Therefore, it is clear that albinos are facing many issues in their lives, and must be protected on the basis of human rights even if they look different and unlike any other race on earth. It is "imperative to inform the medical community and the general national and international public about the tragedies faced by albinos to protect them from skin cancer and ritualistic murders by individuals seeking wealth through clandestine markets perpetuating witchcraft."
A number of steps were taken by the government to protect the albino population. The president ordered a crackdown on witchdoctors in the spring of 2008. In addition, an albino woman, Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, was named to become a member of the parliament, the first albino in such a position in the history of Tanzania. Police have also been advised to generate lists of albinos and provide special protection for them.
To foil graverobbers, graves of the albinistic were to be sealed with concrete. However, by October 2008, killings had not abated, and while some suspects had been apprehended, no convictions had taken place. It was estimated that over 50 murders had taken place since March 2007, many of them in the mining and fishing communities near Lake Victoria, especially at Mwanza, Shinyanga and Mara.
In January 2009, "Prime Minister Pinda had declared war on the albino hunters, and in an effort to stop the trade in albino body parts he had revoked the licenses of all the country's witch doctors who use the body parts in their black magic fetishes."
Convictions against albino hunters
The first ever conviction for the killing of an albino in Tanzania occurred on 23 September 2009 at the High Court in Kahama. This was a "landmark verdict" was due to the fact that there have been more than 50 murders known at this time and this was the first actual conviction. The conviction came about following the murder and mutilation of a 14-year-old boy, Matatizo Dunia, who was attacked by three men in Bukombe district in Shinyanga Region in December 2008. The men carried Dunia from his home late at night before chopping him into pieces.
One of them was later found with Dunia's leg in his possession. The rest of Dunia's body parts were located concealed in shrubbery. The men confessed a desire to sell Dunia's parts to a witch doctor, yet despite this, their legal team had not anticipated the death sentence of hanging which the three men would receive.
The Canada- and Tanzania-based Under The Same Sun albinism activist organisation praised the breakthrough but its founder Peter Ash remarked: "This is one conviction. There are 52 other families still awaiting justice". The Tanzania Albino Society's chairman Ernest Kimaya called for the hanging to be made public to further demonstrate to others that the issue of killing albinos was to be taken seriously.
This issue with witchcraft and its power and influence is that a witch doctor has, as he is almost always "revered by society as ultimate truth.":3 Most tribes in ancient times would have committed infanticide upon an albino child seeing it as a bad omen, practiced by the Sukuma, the Digo and the Maasai.:5 However, in some tribes the albinos were made the sacrifices of offerings to the gods or for such uses as potions which is what they are still hunted for today in the 21st century. "One of the most dangerous myths and the crux of recent attacks against PWA is that their body parts can be made into potions that give good luck and wealth to its users.":4
In 2006 some of the first publicly reported killings were spoken about in the media, such as 34-year-old albino woman, Arithi, who was murdered with her arms and legs hacked off and sold. Some cases which have been key in recent years firstly occurred in 2008 when a Tanzanian man tried to sell his albino wife for a price of US$3,000 to Congolese businessmen. Although the businessmen managed to escape their arrest, Interpol has been assigned to attempt to track these men. this is what led to President Jakaya Kikewere ordering a tightening of police and protection from prosecution, however due to corruption there is still proof that even policeman are being bribed and "bought off" to turn a blind eye to certain crimes if they are receiving pecuniary gain. Although according to BBC News one hundred and seventy witch doctors have been arrested for involvement in inhumane interactions and intentions with albinos.
Another example which occurred where two mothers who were attacked by gangs with machetes in order to get to their albino children. The men broke into a refugee house known as the Lugufu Camp in Kigoma in search of the children; although the children remained untouched the women received severe injuries. A further case uncovered by US congressman Gerry colony was the November 2008 in Ruyigi, Burundi where the case of a 6-year old albino girl who was shot dead and her head and limbs where hacked off, leaving only her dismembered torso.
Organizations to prevent persecution
Many organisations have been set up to help protect and provide for albino communities. Films have also been produced to encourage, educate and create an international understanding of the trials which albinos are facing in a modern world still dealing with ancient rituals and practices which encourage murder for medicine. This is against all international human rights legislation and therefore it is important that albinos are collectively protected. Organisations such as National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), Tanzania Albino Centre (TAC) based in Arusha, Tanzania; aiming to "improve the lives of albinos with educational and medical assistance so that they may live safe, accepted, and prosperous lives in the society of their choice." Other groups include Assisting Children in Need (ACN); and Under the Same Sun where Ash, an albino himself, states his aspirations and purpose for the project: "I have a dream that one day in Africa, people with albinism will take their rightful place throughout every level of society, and that the days of discrimination against persons with albinism will be a faint memory!"
The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) is a key part of the albino protection movement who are working to integrate albinos back into society safely in Burundi "striving to minimize their vulnerability to hunters, skin cancer, and educational and social marginalization.":84 The IFRC particularly works with protecting mothers and children who are fearing persecution and they assist them in providing safe homes and protection where children are frightened of attacker's and by providing a special arena for the albinos it ensures safety protection and an environment of love, understanding of one another all with albinism, and unity in the battle against persecution and discrimination. The Red Cross have made it very clear in their publications that the government must also take drastic steps in protection of persons with albinism to stop the persecution. They have stated that it is imperative that the government strives to "Ensure effective legal protection for people with albinism, use local administrative structures to locate and protect albino people in hiding and conduct public anti-discrimination campaigns and extend medical services to albinos in need."
Asante Mariamu is another organisation which was created after the survival of Mariamu Staford from an anti-albino attack which is determined to ensure that there is "swift prosecution and convictions of their killers" and therefore encouraging justice.:84 This story was presented to the US House of Representatives in March 2010 where US Congressman Gerry Connolly was impacted by this horrific story and "moved me to take action." He introduced a bill to take action to severe violence being performed against albinos in east Africa and to bring justice and punishment to perpetrators. He spoke to the house in March 2010 urging his colleagues "to join me and Mariamu Stanford in bringing international attention to this horrific abuse of human rights." This legislation condemns any injury, murder or mutilation of albinos and specifically urges the local east African government especially in Tanzania and Burundi "to take immediate action to prevent further violence against persons with albinism." There are many more which are working on protecting albinos from persecution, and providing adequate health care, sun protection and learning facilities to ensure that albinos are treated fairly and with all human rights, and not hunted as animals in fear of their life. Albino Awareness day has also been created by Dr Aisha Sethi who is an assistant professor of dermatology in the Pritzker School of Medicine which is celebrated on 4th may each year. The President has also appointed Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer as an albino MP who seeks to be a voice in the Tanzanian parliament for protection against persecution of albinos in society and encourages facilities and support of their physical, medical, AND education protection and enhancement.
Under the Same Sun (UTSS)
Under the Same Sun is a Canadian-founded organisation with support focused on Tanzania and based in Dar es Salam, founded in 2008 by Peter Ash with a vision to "promote via advocacy and education, the wellbeing of persons who are often marginalised or misunderstood. We are driven by the belief that all persons have intrinsic value and since they are created in the image of God." Therefore, they are acting upon the moral and human rights values to support victims to end the discrimination and persecution of innocent albinos. According to Under The Same Sun, to eradicate attacks against albinos, "it is necessary to focus on eliminating reliance on witchcraft beliefs by strengthening the provision of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals while enhancing the sense of fairness by improving on the system of justice.":4 Therefore, regaining albinos their rights to being treated as human, fairly as functioning members of society who may look different and suffer severe vulnerabilities die to their physical condition, but do not deserve to be murdered or hurt in any way because of ancient myths claiming sacrifice of these people will create future benefit for another person.
Films highlighting persecution of albinism
Films which have been created are also helping to raise awareness and tell the stories of the albino crisis of persecution, beginning with In My Genes, a 2009 Kenyan documentary directed by Lupita Nyong'o (later a key actor from the 2013 film Twelve Years a Slave). It was followed in 2010 by White and Black: Crimes of Color, by Canadian filmmaker Jean-François Méan, which tells the story of Vicky Ntetema, a Tanzanian journalist who investigated the trade for albino body parts in Tanzania. This film became the cornerstone of a national campaign sponsored by Under the Same Sun to end the wave of violence. After the film's broadcast, the murder rate, which had been steady for three years, dropped by 90%.
White Shadow, a German–Italian–Tanzanian 2013 drama film written, produced and directed by Noaz Deshe, drew international attention to the issue, screening at various film festivals, winning the Lion of the Future Award at the Venice festival. Also released in 2013, In the Shadow of the Sun, a documentary filmed in Tanzania over the course of six years by Harry Freeland, featured the struggles of Josephat Torner, a campaigner for de-mystification of the superstitions about albinistic people and their use for witchcraft; and teenaged Vedastus, who hopes to survive albino-hunters to adulthood.
Other African countries
In October 2008 AFP reported on the further expansion of killings of albinos to the Ruyigi region of Burundi. Body parts of the victims are then smuggled to Tanzania where they are used for witch doctor rituals and potions. Albinos have become "a commercial good", commented Nicodeme Gahimbare in Ruyigi, who established a local safe haven in his fortified house.
After events involving murders of albino people by three Tanzanian men had been publicised by the BBC and others, the European Parliament strongly condemned the killing of albinos in Tanzania on 4 September 2008. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Resolution 1088, introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, VA), by a vote of 418-1 on 22 February 2010. The resolution condemns the attacks and killings; categorizes them as human rights violations, and urges the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to vigorously prosecute such cases and to conduct educational campaigns to combat the superstitious beliefs that underlie the violent attacks.
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