By Annabel Raw, Aquinaldo Mandlate, Michael Chitalo, and Victor Mhango
Since 2014, the world celebrates the human rights of people living with albinism on 13 June as International Albinism Awareness Day. Albinism is a genetic condition that results in a lack of pigmentation in a person’s hair, skin and eyes. While albinism affects people worldwide, in southern Africa, people with albinism face grave threats to their lives and human rights.
International Albinism Awareness Day is an important opportunity to reflect on the situation in the region, to acknowledge progress, and to urgently commit to collective action to secure the human rights of all people with albinism.
Violence and discrimination
A recent report by the International Bar Association states that hundreds of people with albinism (particularly women and children) in sub-Saharan Africa have been attacked, kidnapped, killed and mutilated, and their remains desecrated in their graves, often in order to obtain and sell people’s body parts to be used in witchcraft rituals. Amnesty International has documented how children in Malawi have been trafficked, abandoned, killed at birth and are subject to sexual violence, often due to myths, misbelief, and superstition around albinism.
People with albinism in southern Africa also face intersecting forms of discrimination on the basis of visual impairment, colour, gender and age. The threat of violence, stigma and social prejudice leads many people with albinism to avoid spaces of social interactions (including schools and work places), limiting the potential to live their lives fully. People with albinism experience discrimination in the criminal justice system too, in both the systemic failure to protect victims of violence, and as persons accused, such as through issuing heightened sentences against people with albinism on the basis of their condition.
Progress and Hope
In this dire context, it is important to acknowledge progress made in the last year in southern Africa. The leadership of the Independent Expert, Ms Ero, has provided vital energy for a consultative and coordinated process to rally regional action.
In July last year, Ms Ero released an important report examining the root causes of violence against people with albinism. This month, she released a further report detailing the role of witchcraft in attacks. In collaboration with the African Commission and a number of key stakeholders, Ms Ero has now released a comprehensive Regional Action Plan 2017-2021 that focuses on prevention, protection, accountability, and equality and non-discrimination, setting out 15 concrete measures for coordinated State action.
The last year has also seen some progress in criminal justice responses at national levels.
In Malawi, with support from the United Nations, the government has undertaken action to improve the criminal justice system’s response to violence against people with albinism. This has included the development of a handbook to help investigators, prosecutors and magistrates to deal with offences perpetrated against persons with albinism, and the promulgation of amendments to the Penal Code and Anatomy Act.
In South Africa, a spiritual leader was successfully prosecuted for planning the murder of a young woman with albinism. Activists have argued that attacks against people with albinism are sustained by economic incentives where masterminds and profiteers act with impunity – only middlemen and hired hands are ever caught and prosecuted. The conviction in South Africa was welcomed by Ms Ero as an important decision, marking one of the first instances where the person who planned and organised the crime was prosecuted.
Critical Action Is Needed
While effective and rights-affirming criminal justice responses must be resourced and pursued in all States, the heavy hand of the criminal justice system is not enough. States are obligated under human rights law to take action to address the underlying causes of violence against people with albinism. As stated by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2013, States should also cooperate on regional and international levels to protect people with albinism. The Regional Action Plan provides a new source of hope for joint action to effectively fulfil and protect the rights of people with albinism in southern Africa. We call on States to urgently implement the Plan in full in the hope that 13 June 2018 gives us more to celebrate.