"We Are Not Animals to be Hunted or Sold"

Violence and discrimination against people with albinism in Malawi 

People with albinism are being targeted for their body parts by those who believe that they contain magical powers and bring good luck. As a result, Malawi’s 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism live in fear of losing their lives to criminal gangs who, in some instances, include close family members.

This report focuses on the lived experiences of people with albinism in Malawi in the context of superstition-driven attacks against them and the corresponding government failure to protect the right to life for this vulnerable group and to guarantee their right to security of person. Although the attacks are being committed by criminal gangs and by individuals, the Government of Malawi has an obligation under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to ensure safety for all people in Malawi, including vulnerable groups such as people with albinism.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Since November 2014, Malawi has seen a sharp increase in human rights abuses against people with albinism, including abductions, killings and grave robberies by individuals and criminal gangs. At least 18[1] people have been killed and at least five have been abducted and remain missing. According to the Malawi Police Service, at least 69 cases involving crimes related to people with albinism have been reported since November 2014.[2]

People with albinism are being targeted for their body parts by those who believe that they contain magical powers and bring good luck. As a result, Malawi’s 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism live in fear of losing their lives to criminal gangs who, in some instances, include close family members.

This report focuses on the lived experiences of people with albinism in Malawi in the context of superstition-driven attacks against them and the corresponding government failure to protect the right to life for this vulnerable group and to guarantee their right to security of person. Although the attacks are being committed by criminal gangs and by individuals, the Government of Malawi has an obligation under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to ensure safety for all people in Malawi, including vulnerable groups such as people with albinism.

Women and children with albinism are particularly vulnerable to abductions and killings by criminal gangs, who see them as easier targets. Women also face the danger of rape and sexual abuse as a result of beliefs that having sex with a person with albinism will cure HIV/AIDS.

Senior government officials, including the President, have publicly condemned the attacks against people with albinism and announced a number of measures, including the appointment of a special legal counsel to assist with investigations and the adoption of a National Response Plan. However, these measures have failed to stop the violence. Some perpetrators have been arrested, charged and convicted, but the majority of crimes remain unresolved. Charges and penalties often have not been commensurate with the gravity of the crimes, creating a sense of impunity.

Amnesty International believes that some of the crimes against people with albinism, especially grave robberies, might have been opportunistic and driven by greed, fuelled by rumours that vast sums can be made by selling the bones of a person with albinism. Activists told Amnesty International that poverty and low literacy levels can drive some people to rob graves. These are the people who largely get arrested after being reported by the people they approached believing that they are buyers. There is a widely-held belief that business people are successful because they use magic.

The Malawi Police Service lacks the capacity to carry out thorough investigations, leading to frustration in communities which creates a risk for mob violence. Poor police investigations may also have allowed perpetrators of murders to avoid facing serious charges, particularly in cases where suspects were arrested in possession of human bones. Amnesty International believes that some suspects charged in 2015 with “possession of human bones” – because police assumed that they had been obtained through grave robberies – may have been involved in the actual killings. Amnesty International urges the government to seek, as a matter of urgency, international support to conduct investigations, including specialist support for forensic testing and combating human trafficking, in order to bring perpetrators of these gross human rights abuses to justice; in accordance with its regional and international human rights obligations. The police must revisit all cases of suspected grave robberies with a view to establishing the exact source of the human bones.

The identity and motivation of the perpetrators of violence against people with albinism needs to be better understood by Malawi law enforcement agents in order to develop appropriate strategies to counter these crimes. Combatting the widespread mythology surrounding albinism and exposing the public to the fate of people who have committed murder in the hope of selling body parts, must be part of any strategy to stop opportunistic crimes within the community. However, identifying and stopping criminal gangs will require a different approach, including tracing and identifying the source of demand for the body parts of people with albinism and cooperation with neighbouring countries where there is reason to believe people or body parts are being trafficked across borders.

Societal attitudes about albinism are not changing and people with albinism continue to be at risk of attacks. Some victims are abducted and sold by close family members. Violence against people with albinism, including abductions and killings, appeared to be intensifying during the time Amnesty International was compiling the report in 2016.

Beyond the current violence, Amnesty International established that people with albinism experience intersectional human rights violations and abuses based on gender, disability and colour. Their economic, social and cultural rights are equally compromised in debilitating ways. Most specifically, societal ignorance about albinism has contributed to exclusion, stigmatization and denial of basic rights such as the right to education and health. The killings and abductions have exposed centuries-old problems of discrimination against people with albinism. Societal misunderstanding of albinism in Malawi has endangered the lives of this population group; it has created insecurity and widespread discrimination. In everyday life people with albinism are frequently treated as less than human. They face stigmatization and other insurmountable barriers to the full enjoyment of their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. They also face significant barriers to their participation as equal members of society.

In order to address the root cause of the problem, Amnesty International is urging the Government of Malawi to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding persons with albinism, and to foster respect for their rights and dignity. Amnesty International is also urging the Malawian government to increase awareness of public health interventions for albinism in order to better address the medical, psychological and social needs of this vulnerable group. The government must provide affordable (or free) sunscreen to people with albinism at all government health facilities and distribute them through community health centres.

The government must also create a conducive learning environment for people with albinism and other disabilities, including by providing learning devices like magnifying glasses, bigger font size in textbooks and other reading materials; sensitize teachers and school administrations about the needs for learners with albinism and adopt measures to end bullying in schools.

 

[1] Amnesty International’s figures are based on cases that the organization was able to verify. The number of the actual killings is probably higher. The major challenge to getting the exact figure of victims is the absence of systematic documentation of attacks.

[2] Data made available to Amnesty International by the Malawi Police Service on 11 April 2016.