A SOCIAL WORK AND HUMAN RIGHTS PERSPECTIVE
Albinism is a genetic disorder characterized by a lack of melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes. In Tanzania, however, the condition is much more prevalent, affecting approximately 1 in every 3,000 persons. Discrimination against albinos is a serious problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Murders of people with albinism are a recently emerging human rights issue in Africa, particularly Tanzania. Recently, however, it has taken a turn for the worst. Witch doctors are now marketing albino skin, bones, and hair as ingredients in potions that are promised to make people rich.
Persecution of people with albinism is based on the belief that certain body parts of albinistic people can transmit magical powers. Such superstition 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.
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 ostracized and even killed for exactly the opposite reason, because they are presumed to be cursed and bring bad luck.
The killers neither care about their victims’ sex nor age, so long as they can obtain the profitable body parts of an albino. To date, the youngest victim has been a seven years old girl.
African rituals and spiritual ideas about albinism have led to the brutal murder of and attack 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. 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 wealth.
It is claimed that these body parts may be sold for as much as $ 75,000 on the black market. 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 and these crimes have been reported as crimes against human rights.
Many of the victims of the albino murders have been children, who deserve more protection than adults. In fact, it is precisely because children are more delicate and vulnerable. Despite the overwhelming recognition that children are particularly vulnerable and susceptible to violence, Governments in third world countries have not implemented any special protections for children and failure to protect children’s right to life and freedom from discrimination surely amount to a gross violation of human rights. Such killings implicate albino children’s right to education. Because of the severe discrimination against albino children in Tanzania, many children do not go to school.
The killings over the past few years have only exacerbated this problem. Some parents prohibit their albino children from going to school for fear that they will be attacked or killed along the way. Special measures have been instituted to escort albino children so that they may be able to go to school without fear of being mutilated or murdered.
Moreover, there must be greater access to education in the rural areas which is where most of the killings have taken place. These areas are plagued by ignorance more than others because of the lack of access to education. This ignorance makes people more vulnerable to believing myths about the curative and magical powers of albino body parts. One way of going about changing people’s erroneous beliefs is to provide education as to what albinism actually is – a hereditary skin disorder.
Fortunately, some NGOs are already doing this. Some groups are also injecting a religious message in their educational outreach as part of an effort to convince people to embrace Christianity as an alternative to witchcraft.
Although persons with albinism have always been discriminated against in Tanzania, it was not until relatively recently that people began systematically hunting and murdering them for their blood, limbs, and organs. The people who are perpetuating the killings are the greedily wealthy Business persons in the fishing and mining industries. Indeed, these business persons create the demand for magic potions, which the witch doctors promise will bring them increased wealth and prosperity. In response to this demand, witch doctors hire spotters and killers to find albinos.
Development measures such as the free market economy, education and urbanization has increased materialism such that success is closely associated with how much material wealth one can amass. The pressure to amass wealth tends to propagate conflict between persons and the system in which they operate Conflicts to which witchcraft offers tangible explanations and remedies.
Agents of the state such as politicians and police often partake in the common worldview of albinism in the region, and therefore are often not immune from the centuries-old myths and traditions that de-humanize and attack people with albinism. Further, these state agents amongst others have been known to participate in witchcraft as consumers, and have also been known to protect witchdoctors and other witchcraft practitioners from prosecution.
In my view, to eradicate attacks against people with albinism, 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.
It is clear that legislation to address the killings and promote the welfare of persons with albinism will not ensure that the rights of albinos will be respected. Indeed, laws for their protection already exist. What is necessary is that the laws be executed in an effective manner and governments in the third world and non-profit organizations must go about transforming people’s beliefs about persons with albinism.