Albinism is a genetic disorder inherited from parents who both have a defective gene that prevents the skin from producing melanin properly. It is characterized by complete or partial lack of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes. Albinism is associated with skin diseases and with a number of vision defects such as photophobia, nystagmus, and amblyopia.
All over Africa, especially in countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, and Cameroon, there is a belief that people with albinism have magical powers. This has devastating consequences for people with this disease. It is believed that some parts of albinos, such as their heart, hair or nails, are important for creating magic potions – for example, fertilizing the soil, becoming invincible, winning political choices or a football match. That is why albinos are killed and mutilated.
But these violent attacks are not the biggest threat to people with albinism in Africa. Albinos in Africa live in fear of witches, but face a much greater threat by spending time outdoors. They are at risk of free death from a disease known as the “silent killer”. The pigment gives the skin its color and helps protect it from damage by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Lack of skin pigmentation increases susceptibility to infections, sunburn and skin cancer … And the closer to the equator, the stronger the sun, the stronger the rays, the greater the risk of skin cancer. Albinism groups say that over 90% of people with this disease in Africa die before they reach the age of 40. The sun is their number one enemy.
Tanzania has a dark relationship with albinism. According to UN estimates, around 80 people with albinism have been murdered in Tanzania since 2000. Shamans hunt for albinos to use parts of their bodies in potions that bring happiness and wealth. Victims are kidnapped by hired killers and then dismembered. Sometimes they are sold by unscrupulous family members. Sometimes a family gets rid of an infant because it believes that albinos have supernatural powers and can bring curses to the family. Even mothers of children living with vitiligo are often abandoned after being accused of infidelity or … being cursed or abnormal. Whole families can be excluded due to having a member with albinism.
Threats to the life of albinos are being compounded by exclusion and denial of basic rights such as the right to education and health. Raising awareness about the myths of overthrowing albinism can change the attitudes of some people. It is time for African governments to pay attention to how albinos are treated.
To raise awareness of the difficult situation of albinos, the UN called June 13 every year the International Day of Albinism Awareness.
When the wave of ritual killings and amputations of people with albinism, especially children, began to spread in Tanzania at the end of 2000, the government of the country took action to ensure the physical security of children with albinism, including through the establishment of temporary shelters, and special boarding schools dealing with protection and education of children with albinism. To populate these facilities, the government instructed district and community leaders to bring children with albinism to shelters. Although there is no official data on this subject, the local activist estimated that about 1,000 children from all over the country were placed in shelters. The “temporary shelter” strategy introduced by the Tanzanian government in late 2000 may have contributed to reducing the number of physical attacks, but Human Rights Watch has noted that it has led to additional challenges. The policy of the Tanzanian government aimed at protecting children with albinism had a negative impact on their rights to family life, an adequate standard of living and inclusive education.
The Tanzanian government has also taken other measures to protect people suffering from albinism. They began to deal with magic practices, registration of traditional healers was introduced, but full supervision of their work has still not been achieved, and public opinion still accepts spell practices and the work of traditional healers. Mainly due to police intervention in Tanzania, albino murders fell from 22 in 2008 to 11 in 2015.
Although the Tanzanian government appears to be sensitive to these fears, it should now intensify its efforts to reintroduce children with albinism into their community and provide them with inclusive education, while continuing to investigate and prosecute those responsible for attacking children with albinism. In doing so, Tanzania has the chance to become a strong African leader in ensuring the safety, integration and dignity of people suffering from albinism, as set out in the Regional Action Plan on Albinism in Africa, the first ever continental strategy to counter violations against a person with albinism, adopted in 2017